New research presents a complex picture of self-reported suicidal behavior in U.S. teenagers over the last few decades. Rates of suicidal ideation and plans dipped overall from 1991 to 2017, but the rate of suicide attempts grew slightly in black adolescents.
White young people “have historically had higher rates of suicide attempts...compared with their black counterparts; however, this study provides some evidence to the contrary,” wrote the authors of the report, which appears in the November issue of Pediatrics.
The investigators, led by Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University, New York, note that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States in those aged 12-17. (Accidents rank first.) According to recent research, black children younger than 12 are at higher risk for death by suicide, compared with whites.
For the new study, researchers analyzed data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted every 2 years among high school students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They examined data from 198,540 teens (mean age=16, 51% male; 49% female).
During the study period, the weighted overall prevalences rates of suicidal ideation, planning, attempt, and injury due to attempt were 19%, 15%, 8%, and 3%, respectively. “Our findings reveal that over that span of time, almost 1 in 5 adolescents are thinking about suicide... and > 1 in 10 has a suicide plan,” the researchers wrote.
Rates of suicidal ideation and planning fell overall, and among females, the rate of suicide attempts fell significantly (odds ratio [OR]=0.98). But self-reported suicide attempts grew significantly among black teens (OR=1.02), and injuries due to suicide attempts grew among black males (OR=1.04).
The findings are “troubling because attempts are the most prominent risk factor associated with suicide death,” the study authors wrote. “Findings regarding the rising rates of suicide attempts in black youth may be related to the documented disparities in mental health treatment and common social etiologic factors disproportionately experienced by black youth.”
In an accompanying commentary, psychiatrist Benjamin N. Shain, MD, PhD, of the University of Chicago, noted a seemingly “counterintuitive” fact: Black teens still have lower rates of suicide than whites teens “despite the greater, long-standing difficulties encountered by black adolescents, including disparities in mental health treatment and disproportionately higher stressors, racial discrimination, and childhood abuse and neglect, as well as other adverse experiences, such as poverty.”
It’s not clear why the reported suicide rate is lower in black adolescents than their white counterparts, Dr. Shain wrote, but misclassification and “undercount as a result of violence with suicidal intent, for example, ‘suicide by cop’” may play a role. Additionally, protective factors may have kept suicide rates down. “External attributional orientation (eg, blaming others or ‘the system’ for difficulties) among blacks may have buffered this group from internalizing blame related to psychological stressors,” he wrote.
Among black adolescents, the growing rate of suicidal behavior is concerning and may be due to a weakening of the hypothesized protective mechanism. Perhaps, Dr. Shain wrote, they now are blaming themselves more for difficulties encountered, “thus leading to an increase in suicide risk factors, particularly depression.” He stressed that, regardless of the reasons for the increase in suicide and suicide attempts, prevention and intervention efforts remain critical.
No study funding is reported, and authors report no relevant disclosures. Dr. Shain reports no relevant disclosures.
SOURCE: Lindsey MA et al, Pediatrics. 2019;144(5): e20191187, DOI:10.1542/peds.2019-1187.