By Sabrina Tavernise
May 18, 2015
The suicide rate among black children has nearly doubled since the early 1990s, while the rate for white children has declined, a new study has found, an unusual pattern that seemed to suggest something troubling was happening among some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Suicide among children ages 5 to 11, the age range the study measured, is rare, and researchers had to blend several years of data to get reliable results. The findings, which measured the period from 1993 to 2012, were so surprising that researchers waited for an additional year of data to check them. The trend did not change.
Suicide rates are almost always lower among blacks than among whites of any age. But the study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, found that the rate had risen so steeply among black children — to 2.54 from 1.36 per one million children — that it was substantially above the rate among white children by the end of the period. The rate for white children fell to 0.77 per million from 1.14.
It was the first time a national study found a higher suicide rate for blacks than for whites of any age group, researchers noted.
“I was shocked, I’ll be honest with you,” said Jeffrey Bridge, an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Did we do the analysis correctly?’ I thought we had made a mistake.”
The researchers used national data based on death certificates that listed suicide as the underlying cause. In the study, they offered a few possible explanations for the difference, including that black children are more likely to be exposed to violence and traumatic stress, and that black children are more likely to experience an early onset of puberty, which can increase the risk of depression and impulsive aggression. But it was not clear whether those characteristics had changed much over the period of the study and would account for the sharp rise.
Sean Joe, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied suicide among black youth and did not take part in the new research, pointed out that suicide had long been one of the few negative health outcomes that have affected blacks less than whites.
A departure from that trend happened from the mid-1980s to the 1990s, when rising suicide rates among black teenagers narrowed the gap with white teenagers. One hypothesis was that the rate was driven up by easier access to guns; another was that there had been a cultural shift, in which young blacks were not as religiously observant as older blacks. In that thinking, religious faith had conferred a protective quality that had made older blacks less vulnerable to suicide.
“What it means to grow up young and black has changed,” Professor Joe said. “Something happened that put black teens at risk.”
He added, “I find the rates for children even more troubling, because they are the most vulnerable.”
The finding seemed to buck other trends by race. Among adolescents of both races, for example, the rate declined over the same period, falling for blacks more than for whites, according to figures Dr. Bridge provided. The rate for black boys rose sharply. The rate for black girls also rose, but the change was not statistically significant, he said.
The way the children were dying seemed to provide some clues. Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who read the study, pointed out that gun deaths among white boys had gone down by about half while staying about the same for black boys, signaling that gun safety education may not be reaching black communities as effectively as white ones.
Suicides by hanging, on the other hand, roughly tripled among black boys, while remaining virtually unchanged for whites.
“He uncovered something very significant in the data,” she said, referring to Dr. Bridge. “Viewed over all, that age group looked like it was flat.”
She said the traditionally lower rates for blacks had often been attributed to strong social networks and family support, religious faith and other cultural factors. “That makes me wonder whether there is something in those protective factors that may have shifted in the wrong direction over those two decades,” she said.