Suicide rates for children ages 5 to 12 are roughly twice as high for black children as for white children, according to new data. But for adolescents ages 13 to 17, the pattern flips, with white kids having higher suicide rates, researchers report online May 21 in JAMA Pediatrics.
The new study is based on an analysis of suicide rates among children ages 5 to 17 from 2001 to 2015. Suicide was relatively rare among young children, the scientists found, but rates for both black and white kids in the United States increased with age.
“We really need to understand what are the risk and protective factors for not only suicide, but suicidal behavior in young people of color,” says study coauthor Jeff Bridge, an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Most studies investigating psychological or social risk factors for suicide in young people are of predominantly white youth, he says.
Suicide rates have traditionally been higher among white individuals for all age groups in the country. That trend does hold for older children in the study. From ages 13 to 17, black teens had a roughly 50 percent lower rate of suicide compared with white teens.
Known risk factors for suicide — such as depression, previous suicide attempts, alcohol and substance use and family history of suicide — “are likely to be risk factors across the board,” Bridge says. But little is known about social risk factors that might underlie the racial disparity seen in younger kids, such as feeling unsafe playing outside, having little to no access to health care or having lost an older sibling to violence.
Bridge and his colleagues plan to explore the issue. In the meantime, he encourages parents to ask their children if they are having suicidal thoughts or feelings of hopelessness. Research finds that discussing suicide will not put the idea in a child’s head, he says. Rather, such conversations “can help kids who may be even more at risk to get the care that they need.”