This post has been updated.
African American children are taking their lives at roughly twice the rate of their white counterparts, according to a new study that shows a widening gap between the two groups.
The 2001-2015 data, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, confirm a pattern first identified several years ago when researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio found that the rate of suicides for black children ages 5 to 12 exceeded that of young whites. The results were seen in both boys and girls.
Although suicide is rare among young children, the latest findings reinforce the need for better research into the racial disparities, lead author Jeffrey Bridge said Monday. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for older children and adolescents in the United States.
“We can’t assume any longer that suicide rates are uniformly higher in white individuals than black,” said Bridge, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at the Columbus hospital. “There is this age-related disparity, and now we have to understand the underlying reasons. … Most of the previous research has largely concerned white suicide. So we don’t even know if the same risk and protective factors apply to black youth.”
Historically, suicide rates in the United States have been higher for whites than blacks across all age groups. That remains the case for adolescents, ages 13 to 17, according to the new study. White teens continue to have a 50 percent higher rate of suicide than black teens.
Overall between 1999 and 2015, more than 1,300 children ages 5 to 12 took their own lives in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers translate into an average of one child 12 or younger dying by suicide every five days. The pace has actually accelerated in recent years, CDC statistics indicate.
The researchers based their latest analysis on the CDC's Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, which does not include geographical or socioeconomic data.
Although the study was unable to provide a cultural context for the racial difference in suicide rates, psychiatrist Samoon Ahmad thinks a number of reasons could account for the disparity.
“To me, the 5-12 range is more related to developmental issues and the possible lack of a family network, social network and cultural activities,” said Ahmad, a clinical associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine who was not involved in the research. “And with the introduction of social media, there is more isolation with children, not as much neighborhood play. Kids are more socially in their own vacuum.”
Ahmad described this age group as “probably the most vulnerable.” Yet adults tend to think the children are somehow too young to experience such depths of despair, he noted.
“No one talks about that with them. We tend to put them in silos, and don’t discuss these things because we think it’s too traumatic,” he said. “Instead, there must be a slow and steady flow of communication.”
Previous studies have looked at some of the characteristics and circumstances surrounding children's suicides.
In 2017, research by Bridge and colleagues found that among children, ages 5 to 11, and young adolescents, ages 12 to 14, those who took their own lives were more likely to be male, African American and dealing with stressful relationships at home or with friends. Children who had a mental health problem at the time of death were more likely than young adolescents to have been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Young adolescents who killed themselves were more likely to have had relationship problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They also had higher rates of depression, according to last year's study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics.
That 2017 report found more than a third of elementary school-aged suicides involved black children compared to just 11.6 percent of early adolescent suicides.
Bridge said his motivation for delving into this issue was a suicide in a town not far from Columbus. The child was not yet 10.
“We went into the original study because suicide rates were increasing among adolescents in the United States,” Bridge said. The local death “made us think if there was a change in the suicide rate of children, and that’s what made us look into it.”