U.S. suicide rates vary widely across racial and ethnic groups in ways that can upend expectations. The explanations may suggest avenues for prevention.
Suicide in America has been rising for two decades, with rates for white Americans consistently well above those for Asian-Americans, Black Americans and Hispanics.
In data released in 2017, the rate for white Americans was around 19 per 100,000, and it was about 7.1 for both Hispanics and Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders, and 6.6 for Black Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Emotional and social stress is associated with suicide. From this, a puzzle emerges.
‘Whether through family, church or another community’
Because of pervasive racism, Black Americans experience substantial stress, fewer opportunities for advancement and more threats to well-being. These negative experiences can degrade mental and physical health, as well as limit education, employment and income — all of which can increase suicide risk. Unemployment, which is higher for Black Americans than white Americans, is itself a source of stress.
Yet the Black suicide rate is about one-third that of whites.
“Social stressors — lower socioeconomic status and racism among them — are more prevalent and severe for the Black population than the white one,” said Joshua Breslau, a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND. “But suicide and some risk factors for it, like mental health conditions, are less prevalent in the Black population. This is puzzling.”
One explanation may be a racial disparity in suicide data. Ian Rockett, an epidemiologist with West Virginia University, studies mortality data. “Because suicides can be difficult to prove, many may be misclassified as undetermined intent or accidents,” he said. “This problem is greater for Black Americans than white Americans.”