By Burt Constable
Palatine mom Gabriela “Gabi” Vargas, 35, knows the hopeless feeling that can envelop people in a world where they don’t feel they belong. So does Alejandro “A.J.” Ramirez, 23, who split his childhood between California and Bloomingdale.
That’s why Vargas and Ramirez are working together to create the nation’s first, which kicks off Friday at an event in Schaumburg.
A recent rise in suicide rates among the Hispanic population in the United States, and a lack of services tailored to their cultural needs, inspired Vargas and Ramirez to start their own network.
“I’ve struggled with a lot of things since I was really young. For years, I really didn’t understand what was wrong with me. ” says Vargas, a Fremd High School graduate who remembers thinking often about ending her life. “I would clean up my house so the EMTs wouldn’t find a mess.”
After a failed suicide attempt in 2016, and seeing the pain caused a year later by the death of a cousin who died by suicide, Vargas got the help she needed with professional therapy.
“Thinking back on it today, I’m just so thankful to God for every person he put in my life to give me hope,” Vargas says.
As a middle-school student, Ramirez remembers taking a knife into the bathroom to kill himself. But it was the only bathroom in the home he shared with his mother and grandmother, and he was interrupted.
“I never felt Hispanic, not a bit, and I never felt white,” Ramirez remembers thinking. “You feel so disconnected to it all. Who am I?”
After graduating from high school, Ramirez was still struggling. His mother went to a program where she saw Vargas win an award for her suicide-prevention advocacy and asked Vargas to phone her son.
Vargas persuaded Ramirez to attend a grief and support studio she created in Elgin that uses art therapy, drum groups and other methods to help people get the care they need. It’s called Poiema, which is a Greek word meaning “masterpiece.”
“It was breathtaking. It was life-changing,” says Ramirez, who immediately asked how he could help.
As a third-generation immigrant, he is part of a vulnerable population.
“A third-generation immigrant is three times more likely to take their life than a first-generation immigrant,” Vargas says. Acculturation, the process of coping with the social, psychological and cultural stresses created by trying to balance different cultures, is one reason for that, she says.
Ramirez remembers being told that he could end his depression and anxiety if he would “man up.” Vargas says many Hispanic families tend to deal with mental health issues as a family instead of reaching out to professionals.
A single mom, Vargas says her sons, Josue Vargas, 17, who goes by “Josh,” and 10-year-old Caleb Zavala, join her in spreading the word about recognizing the need for mental health care. A former medical translator for Advocated Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Vargas now is a child abuse prevention specialist at The Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County in Hoffman Estates. She has completed numerous training sessions and is a popular speaker about mental health issues, especially for Hispanic communities.
“I was that youth,” Vargas says. “And my family was that Hispanic family. I know what we deal with. I know what we are afraid of.”
The National Hispanic Suicide Prevention Network can help by providing “social networking and awareness,” Vargas says, offering up a quotation from Fred Sandoval, executive director of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association. “Latinos are not hard to reach. The system is not designed to engage them.”
For information about Poiema or the National Hispanic Suicide Prevention Network, please call (630) 956-6776 or email [email protected]