Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people in the United States between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and young women are more likely to attempt suicide compared to young men. Thoughts of suicide are typically linked to depression and other mental health struggles, and research has shown such issues can coincide with criminal behaviors–something a new study of Latino juvenile offenders looks at.
The link between criminal activity and suicidal thoughts among youth has not been fully investigated, especially when it comes to youth from certain ethnic backgrounds.
In an effort to understand the role culture plays in mental health among juvenile offenders, researchers at UTSA and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) examined mental health evaluations of juvenile offenders aged 10 to 17-years-old in the county’s juvenile justice system over a six-month period. They then took into account those individuals’ backgrounds, the types of crimes they committed, and the rate at which they experienced suicidal thoughts.
“Suicide is the leading cause of death for confined juvenile offenders,” said study co-author Michael Tapia in a university press release. “In all of the research we came across, we found that few, if any, studies looked at whether the type of crimes these juveniles committed could be used as indicators to measure the likelihood that they would entertain suicidal thoughts. None focused specifically on Hispanic youth living in predominately Hispanic areas.”
Overall, researchers found first-time offenders of all genders, racial and ethnic groups who committed violent crimes were consistently rated higher for suicidal thoughts or inclinations.
Of those, however, the majority of Hispanic youth tested less likely to experience suicidal thoughts compared to study participants of other ethnic backgrounds. This was surprising to researchers, especially since Hispanic youth have traditionally had higher rates of suicidal thoughts due to acculturation and discrimination stress.
Hispanic juveniles less likely to commit suicide?
“We expected Hispanic juvenile offenders to have higher rates of suicidal thoughts than they showed during this period,” said Tapia. “These youth deal with many societal factors that are known stressors for depression and suicidal predilection, but there exists a cultural resiliency that resists the screening capabilities of the MAYSI-2 (the standard mental health screening tool used in the juvenile sysdtem). This requires further research to determine whether if this is cultural or a result of the screening tool’s limitations.”
Though cultural resiliency may indeed come into play for Hispanic juvenile offenders, the researchers expressed concern that the MAYSI-2 screening test contained too much innate cultural bias in how questions were worded. This might inadvertently prevent the MAYSI-2 from detecting suicidal thoughts among minorities at the same rate as it did among non-Hispanic whites.
“The MAYSI-2 is a widely used tool for mental health screening,” said co-author Henrika McCoy. “By all accounts, it’s a good tool to assess average mental health needs at the time of intake. It, however, might not be tailored to meet the needs of all juvenile offenders equally.”