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Is Social Work the Key to Combatting Suicide?

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When Carolina Hausmann-Stabile talks about her work, there’s an urgency to her words. That’s because it often involves the difference between life and death—literally.  Hausmann-Stabile, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Temple’s College of Public Health, researches the rising rates of suicidal behavior among Latina adolescents.  She is finding that in the face of this complex problem, social work might provide the best foundation for change. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently released data showing that rates of suicide in the United States have increased significantly in recent years, especially among adolescent girls.  Hausmann-Stabile has tracked similar surges in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay—seven countries where she is focusing her work.  “The numbers are increasing across Latin America, including in countries that traditionally had very low rates of suicidal behavior,” she says.

What’s going on?  The causes are complex, but Hausmann-Stabile says that changing family dynamics play a major role.  “More and more parents are working long shifts away from home.  They’re busy and stressed out, and kids are growing up alone,” she says.  “Some families don’t have the emotional bonds that help them deal with the normal challenges of raising adolescents, because they haven’t been present for each other.”  In other words, she says, suicide is a symptom of societal shifts and relational issues as much as individual circumstances.   

Hausmann-Stabile argues that suicidal behavior needs to be addressed on a familial, community, and societal level, and that’s why she’s applying the paradigms of social work. “We have to generate a dialogue,” she says.  “As social workers, we’re trained to connect people, to see their respective strengths.”  In each of the countries she is focusing on, Hausmann-Stabile has met with coalitions of experts—everyone from clinicians to academics, policymakers to members of the press.  The first step:  figuring out how to encourage more public dialogue about suicide in countries where cultural norms and government policies have long discouraged it. 

But things are changing.  Meetings in Argentina, Chile, and Peru saw massive turnouts, not just of the experts she invited but also of families, hospital workers, and others who wanted to talk.  “It was eye-opening—I consider the amount of people who showed up as a thermometer of what’s happening,” she says.  “Politicians and policymakers are starting to understand that this cannot be ignored.” 

Hausmann-Stabile will soon start collecting data on adolescent suicidal behavior in each country, which she will provide to the coalitions to help generate ideas for slowing the tide.  She says that families and communities need to be given tools and resources to connect with adolescents in crisis.  “Help families feel supported—give them places to go when they face challenges,” she suggests.  “Help schools build an awareness of how to address mental health issues.” 

Despite the trends, there are reasons to be hopeful.  Collaboration is pushing research forward in Chile, where Hausmann-Stabile has helped the children’s health organization Fundación Tierra de Esperanza apply for funding to study suicidal behavior among at-risk adolescents for the first time.  And the provincial government of Córdoba, Argentina has publicly supported Hausmann-Stabile’s work with care providers at the Clínica Privada Saint Michel, a mental health services clinic.  “There is a strong tradition of well-trained mental health professionals in Latin America,” says Hausmann-Stabile.  “Together we’re building the knowledge we need to address the crisis.”  

Posted:  May 13, 2016