While a paper published Monday by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics found that the overall suicide rate is still lower for black youth than white youth, the study bucked previous research that traditionally found higher rates of suicide among whites across all age groups.
The researchers found that suicide is twice as common among black children ages 5-12 compared to their white counterparts. Suicide is more common among white teens ages 13-17.
“Our findings provide further evidence of significant age-related racial disparity in childhood suicide and rebut the long-held perception that suicide rates are uniformly higher among white than black individuals in the United States,” the paper states.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24.
Almost 4,600 American youths take their lives each year, the agency said, and the suicide rate among teens and young adults as has increased threefold since the 1940s. Still, young children rarely take their own lives.
The researchers said further analysis would be needed to determine what contributed to the disparities among black and white children, including access to behavioral health care and the homicide rate among older black adolescents, which the paper called a “competing risk for suicide.”
“Gaining an understanding of these and other contributing factors may someday lead to targeted, culturally sensitive interventions and help reverse the trend in suicide rates in the U.S.,” Lisa Horowitz, Ph.D., a co-author of the study, said in a prepared statement.
The new findings appear part of a long-term trend. The paper published online Monday cited previous research finding that suicide rates increased from 1993 to 1997 and from 2008 to 2012 among black children ages 5 to 11, from 1.36 to 2.54 per million. During the same period, suicide rates decreased among white children in the same age group, from 1.14 to 0.77 per million.
The new study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that, from 2001 to 2015, the suicide rate for black children in the 5-12 age group was about two times the rate of white children in the same group, among both boys and girls.
The team of researchers separately analyzed data for adolescents aged 13-17.
For that group, the rate of suicide of black teens was 50 percent lower than white teens.
“While the suicide rate was lower for black youth than white youth overall, we found a striking change in that trend when we analyzed the suicide rates by the two age groups,” Horowitz said.
The suicide rate was similar regardless of gender, the researchers found.
A National Institute of Mental Health news release announcing publication of the study noted that researchers do not have information on what might have caused the racial disparities in suicide rates.
“Future studies should aim to clarify whether risk and protective factors identified in studies of primary white adolescent suicide decedents are associated with black youths and how these determinants throughout childhood and adolescence,” the paper states.