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Study: Young Black Children Have Higher Suicide Rates Than Whites

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 5/21/2018 Tala Salem
A teenager in her loneliness surrounded by darkness.: It was widely believed that suicide rates were higher in white children and teens, but that has changed in recent years. © (Getty Images) It was widely believed that suicide rates were higher in white children and teens, but that has changed in recent years.

Black children have higher suicide rates than white children at younger ages, but those proportions flip in the teenage years, according to a new study that challenges commonly held beliefs about racial disparities in child suicide rates.

The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA and based on an analysis of suicide rates among children aged 5 to 17 between 2001 and 2015, found suicide rates were 42 percent lower overall among black youths than white youths. But among children aged 5 to 12, black children had a significantly higher incidence of suicide than white children. From 13 to 17, the suicide rate was lower among black children than white children.

"This is an important finding because it's widely believed suicide rates in white individuals are higher across the lifespan than black individuals," Dr. Jeff Bridge, the study's lead author, says. "Traditionally, (suicide rates in whites) have been higher, but in the last decade and a half there's been a reversal in that phenomenon."

The suicide rate among black children under 13 was approximately double that of white children, a finding observed in both boys and girls. But for youth aged 13 to 17, it was roughly 50 percent lower in black children than in white children. From 2001 to 2015, officials recorded 1,661 suicide deaths in black children and 13,341 suicide deaths in white children aged 5 to 17 years in the U.S.

Although the findings highlight opportunities for targeted prevention efforts, data is limited and researchers could not identify factors that explain age-related race differences in suicide, including access to culturally acceptable behavioral health care or the potential role of death due to homicide among black adolescents, according to the study.

However, the findings highlight the significance of exploring race-related differences in suicide and developing more effective suicide detection and prevention efforts for both black and white children at different stages of their childhood and adolescence, according to Bridge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention often uses five-year or 10-year age bands for analyzing data on suicide rates. For children, according to Bridge, the CDC should be taking into account developmental periods as opposed to age bands.

"Had we analyzed data that way, we would not have found age-related racial disparities," he says. That is because suicide rates increase throughout each age of adolescence, Bridge says, and every year a child gets older the suicide rate increases until the age of adulthood.

"Going forward, surveillance efforts need to reflect the association between age and suicide," Bridge says. "We can't just rely on age groupings across five-year developmental periods. When the CDC publishes statistics, the groupings cut across large developmental periods and that runs the risk of missing some age-related differences in the risk for suicide."

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