Suicide rates in the United States have traditionally been higher among whites than blacks across all age groups. However, a new study from researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and collaborators published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that racial disparities in suicide rates are age-related. Specifically, suicide rates for black children aged 5-12 were roughly two times higher than those of similarly aged white children.
“Our findings provide further evidence of a significant age-related racial disparity in childhood suicide rates and rebut the long-held perception that suicide rates are uniformly higher in whites than blacks in the United States,” says Jeff Bridge, PhD, director of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research and lead author of the publication. “The large age-related racial difference in suicide rates did not change during the study period, suggesting that this disparity is not explained by recent events such as the economic recession.”
For older children, the trend reverses back to the national average. For youth aged 13-17 years, suicide was roughly 50 percent lower in black children than in white children.
Suicide deaths have been dominant stories in recent news reports. The deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and TV travel explorer Anthony Bourdain put a worldwide focus on the problem. In effect, the celebrities put a face on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, released the same week, showing the suicide rate across the U.S. has increased by 30 percent since 1999.
“There is a national goal to reduce suicide by 20 percent by 2025,” says Dr. Bridge, who is also a professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “The CDC report shows no state is making adequate progress.”
“Our study is one effort to dig into the data and understand what’s truly occurring, specifically in terms of age and race,” Dr. Bridge continues. “Studies like this are a first step toward appropriately addressing suicide.”
Dr. Bridge and colleagues obtained data for cases in which suicide was listed as the underlying cause of death among persons aged 5-17 years from 2001-2015 from the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The data showed 1,661 suicide deaths among black youths and 13,341 among white youths occurred during those years. The overall suicide rate was about 42 percent lower among black youth (1.26 per 100,000) than among white youth (2.16 per 100,000). But analysis of suicide rates among 5- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 17-year-olds revealed age strongly influenced this racial difference.
“The existing literature does not adequately describe the extent of age-related racial disparities in youth suicide, and understanding these differences is essential to creating targeted prevention efforts,” says Dr. Bridge.
While the findings highlight an important opportunity for more targeted intervention, these data are limited and cannot point to the potential reasons for the observed differences.
“We lacked information on key factors that may underlie racial differences in suicide, including access to culturally acceptable behavioral health care or the potential role of death due to homicide among older black youth as a competing risk for suicide in this subgroup,” Dr. Bridge elaborates. “Future studies should try to find out whether risk and protective factors identified in studies of primarily white adolescent suicides are associated with suicide in black youth and how these factors change throughout childhood and adolescence.”
Dr. Bridge believes that driving down suicide rates can begin with local efforts then expanding them regionally, statewide and nationally. He pointed to Nationwide Children’s expanding the Signs of Suicide prevention program that trains teachers, coaches, cafeteria staff and more in schools in central and southeast Ohio to recognize suicide warning signs and how to respond effectively.
The Center for Suicide Prevention and Research’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator John Ackerman, PhD, helped write the Ohio Suicide Reporting Guidelines and immediately in the wake of the Spade and Bourdain deaths, reached out to media with advice on reporting the deaths in a manner to prevent contagion.
A rise in suicides often follows the suicide of an admired person and young people are the most vulnerable, Dr. Bridge says.
“Parents and health providers should be aware of the importance of asking children directly about suicide if there is a concern about a child,” adds Dr. Bridge. “Asking children directly about thoughts of suicide will not put the idea in a child’s head or trigger subsequent suicidal behavior.”
Responsible reporting on suicide and the inclusion of stories of hope and resilience can prevent more suicides. You can find more information on safe messaging about suicide here. If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741.Citation: Bridge JA, Horowitz LM, Fontella CA, Sheftall AH, Greenhouse J., Kelleher KJ, Campo JV. Age-related racial disparity in suicide rates among US youths from 2001 through 2017. JAMA Pediatrics. 2018 May 21.