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Health, Science, Environment

Suicide Attempts Rise Among Black Teens, Wash U Study Reports

Black teens were the only racial group to show an increase in reported suicide attempts, according to new research from Washington University.
LA Johnson | NPR
Black teens were the only racial group to show an increase in reported suicide attempts, according to new research from Washington University.

Black teenagers in the U.S. are attempting suicide more often — even as suicide attempts have dropped for teens of other racial groups.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among American teenagers. 

Suicide attempts for black teenage boys have been climbing since the early 1990s,  and research from Washington University suggests a similar trend for black girls.

Sean Joe, professor of social development at Washington University and study co-author, called the results troubling.

“Some of the most vulnerable in our societies are now turning to suicidal behavior in patterns which we didn't see before,” said Joe, an expert in suicide among black Americans.

Joe and his colleagues examined surveys from nearly 200,000 high schoolers across the U.S. from 1991 to 2017. 

There were substantial declines in the number of teens who had suicidal thoughts across all races — but still, nearly 1 in 7 reported they had made a suicide plan and about 1 in 13 had attempted suicide. 

Black teens were the only racial group to show an increase in reported suicide attempts. All others, including whites and Hispanics, reported declining suicide attempts. 

Although suicide attempts among black boys have risen steadily in recent years, trends for black females have held steady until now.

The exact reasons for the increase are unclear.

Sean Joe, professor of social development at Washington University, worked with a collaborative group of researchers from institutions across the country to better understand trends in teen suicide across racial groups.
Credit Washington University
Sean Joe, professor of social development at Washington University, worked with a collaborative group of researchers from institutions across the country to better understand trends in teen suicide across racial groups.

Suicide is driven by a complex mix of factors, but black teens in the U.S. face unique social pressures that may contribute to an increasing risk of suicide. 

“A confluence of factors are playing out here,” Joe said. “The level of stress they’re facing, the violence and trauma they’re exposed to, the lack of access to quality mental health care.”

The research team said the results underscore the importance of studying health trends across racial groups — and considering their distinct experiences and risk factors.

“It's critically important that we look at each group separately,” Joe said. “Because despite what might be working for white teens, it’s clearly not working as well for black teens.”

If you or someone you know are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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