A Baltimore immigrant community sees suicides spike
BALTIMORE (WBFF) - An immigrant community in the heart of Baltimore is seeing an alarming spike in suicides, and health professionals believe it may be part of a new national health crisis.
Every Sunday, they come for prayer and for healing - healing needed now more than ever.
Father Bruce Lewandowski is the Pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Latino church in Southeast Baltimore.
He said: “I’ve been a priest for 24 years, always serving Latino communities and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
He calls it a crisis, a suicide epidemic among young immigrants and children of immigrants.
“October, November, December, there were three individuals, one each month,” Father Lewandowski said. “A couple times a month now, we’re visiting Johns Hopkins for young people who have attempted suicide or severe, severe depression.”
Sister Mercedes Castillo has been assisting families facing the crisis.
“From January to June this year, I took seven people to the emergency room in Bayview to receive help. They were in risk of taking their own lives.”
She says some were as young as 12.
Castillo says it started in the fall after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided cities across the country, arresting hundreds of immigrants, including five in Baltimore City.
It started the next day, Oct. 3, with a 16-year-old boy, Alfonzo Valencia.
With tears filling her eyes, Sister Castillo remembers him.
“He was a quiet boy, educated, quiet."
Alfonzo, born in the U.S., served as the bridge between his family and the outside world. His father, Enrique, doesn’t speak English.
Through a translator, Valencia says his son was bullied relentlessly.
“What my son was facing was fear, violence and bullying, too, and hopelessness because he could not help me out.”
Valencia says it was too much pressure.
“Maybe he was feeling tired of this kind of life.”
Alfonzo hung himself. His father found him, along with a letter. Valencia will never forget what was written by his son.
"Very hard words, that still give me pain in my heart,” he said. “’Father, I feel so bad because I want to be able to help you but I can’t; I’m good for nothing. And if we don’t see each other anymore, remember that I love you.’”
Two weeks after Alfonzo, there was another. Father Lewandowski said: “A mother of two children committed suicide, and then a few weeks later.... a young man from El Salvador killed himself, and then it just kept going.”
Four suicides in four months.
Monica Guerrero Vazquez is the program coordinator for Centro SOL at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. She answered when Father Lewandowski reached out for help.
“One case of suicide is too many cases. So, three cases is a lot in a small community.”
She says the congregation is facing a crisis, and she does not think it’s the only one.
“I was absolutely shocked, especially when you look at the age of the individuals who died from suicide: teenager, young adult. That’s too young to not do something.”
Now, Vazquez and her team from Johns Hopkins visit Sacred Heart of Jesus each month.
Father Lewandowski said: “We have been able to get mental health professionals to come to the congregation on Sundays and talk to them after Mass and let them know that there are resources available in Spanish.”
Father Bruce and Vazquez believe young immigrants are in the midst of a newly-unfolding national mental health crisis.
Children of immigrants were forced into a life they never asked for.
Vazquez said she is hearing reoccurring themes from young immigrants and children of immigrants.
“The fear of deportation, the fear of being separated from families, the fear of returning to places where they cannot come back. Those fears, the uncertainty of ‘What’s going to happen to me and my family?’ How can you cope with that?”
Father Lewandowski says the stress is too much for young children.
“The stress and pressure of this ‘what if, what if they follow us to school? What if they show up when we’re shopping? What if?’ I think it’s a factor when we look at young people and the state of their mental health. We have to pay attention to that.”
Because of the lack of resources and fear of speaking out, at this point, there are no concrete numbers on young immigrant suicide.
Vazquez said: “We wanted to find data, we wanted to see what’s out there, but there is not enough data.”
Nearly 10 years ago, The American Journal of Public Health recommended there should be increased support for immigrant families. Since then, little has been done and the immigration debate has only become more contentious.
“It’s a life. It’s life. Right? That were talking about?” Vazquez said. “So we cannot wait for the process of data generation to happen.”
The response from Johns Hopkins is already making a difference in one congregation.
“In the last couple months, thanks be to God, no one has succeeded,” Father Bruce said.
However, Vazquez says this kind of mental health counseling is likely needed across the country.
“It’s important to work together collaborate and provide support for these families, for their health, for their well-being and for their lives" - lives like Alfonzo’s, that ended too soon.
His father said: “It’s a pain that a cannot be described, it’s so strong.”
A pain that overwhelms, and when it does, “I come here to receive comfort, and to ask God to be always with me," Valencia said about the church.
It's a place of solace and a congregation working through the darkness, to find a flicker of light to bring healing.
“We’re talking about humans, we’re talking about people, moms and dads and children and teenagers,” Vazquez said. “We should care about people.”