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Trending data: A small increase in suicide rates for black boys

While the actual numbers remain low, the increasing rate of death by suicide among black boys demands public interest and attention.

Historically, statistics had shown that being black in the United States afforded protection against dying by suicide. African Americans across all age ranges had seen a low rate of suicide compared to other races, including whites.

But this fact was overturned in 2015, when researchers examining suicide in very young children made a startling discovery: Among 5-11-year olds, rates of suicide for black children were actually higher than those for whites. Even more alarming, the suicide rate among black children was increasing, particularly for boys.

The research team used publicly available data provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine trends spanning a twenty year period from 1993 to 2012, the last year that national suicide data was available at the time of their 2015 study. They found that rates of suicide among black children nearly doubled during that time, from 1.36 to 2.54 per one million. Among white children, rates actually declined, from 1.14 to 0.77 per one million.

The CDC makes these data accessible online to anyone, allowing us to examine newly released statistics from 2013 and 2014 and confirm that the rates of suicide among black 5-11 year olds continued to increase, rising to 2.96 per one million. The rates for white children also rose during this time period to 1.20 per one million, yet this is still less than half the rate among black children.

The higher rate of suicide among African Americans ends once children enter adolescence. Data from the CDC show that rates for blacks are lower than that for whites in early adolescence (12-14 year-olds), older adolescence (15-18-year olds), and adulthood.

In other words, the higher rate of suicide among African Americans remains limited to elementary school aged children. We don't yet know the causes, but the study authors put forth a few hypotheses, such as disproportionate exposure among black children to violence and trauma, earlier onset of puberty, or that fact that black children are less likely to seek or receive mental health care, even when they are considering suicide.

It would be alarmist and irresponsible at this point to refer to the increasing number of deaths as an "epidemic" of suicide among young black children, given how rare it is in this age group. For instance, in the five year period between 1993 and 1997, the recorded number of black children who killed themselves was thirty; between 2008 and 2012, that number was fifty-nine.

Still, the increasing rate of death by suicide, particularly among black boys, is consistent and unmistakable and demands public interest and attention. Further study is needed. The suicide rate should not be increasing for anyone.  That it is increasing for some of the most vulnerable Americans–very young black children–is especially tragic.

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