Long-term U.S. suicide trends changed heading into the pandemic, as rates fell steadily among Whites for the first time and rose among Blacks and Hispanics, according to federal data released Wednesday.
Suicide rates for non-Hispanic Whites fell 7%, from 18.1 for every 100,000 people in 2018 to 16.9 for every 100,000 in 2020, after increasing steadily since 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
From 2007 to 2020, suicide rates for non-Hispanic Blacks increased by 39%, from 5.6 for every 100,000 people to 7.8 for every 100,000, after years of steady decline, according to a data brief from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Among Hispanics, suicide rates rose by 29%, from 5.8 for every 100,000 people in 2012 to 7.5 for every 100,000 in 2020, after remaining stable for years.
“Suicide rates in the United States have traditionally been higher for non-Hispanic White than non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people,” the CDC said.
The changes likely arise from increases in clinical depression, substance abuse and social isolation among Blacks and Hispanics, who also worry more about racism than Whites, said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association.
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“Certainly, people of color often have special challenges living with racism and discrimination that seem to have escalated in recent years during our very turbulent and divisive times,” said Mr. Plante, a Santa Clara University professor. “Also, many people of color live in lower socioeconomic environments, and so the turmoil associated with the pandemic, inflation and economic disparity may be contributing factors too.”
Only time will tell whether the change persists, said social psychologist Brett Pelham, a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland. He said suicide risks tend to be highest in successful people who suddenly face “some kind of personal or financial crisis.”
“Suicide is a very unusual social problem because it is one of the rare areas in which highly advantaged people typically do worse than their less-advantaged peers,” Mr. Pelham said. “For example, it would be important to see if the Black and Latino Americans whose risk for suicide increased over time were those who were actually doing better financially than many of their same-race peers.”
Other reports have shown suicide risks rising among minorities during the pandemic.
Mental Health America’s online screening program found that Blacks, American Indians and Hispanics reported the highest increases in suicidal thoughts from 2019 to 2021. Suicidal thoughts rose 9% among Blacks, 7% among American Indians or Alaska Natives and 7% among Hispanics during that period.
“There are many factors at play, including that Black screeners were more likely than screeners of any other race or ethnicity to report racism and financial problems as main concerns for their mental health,” said Maddy Reinert, senior director of population health at Mental Health America, a Virginia-based nonprofit.
Jane Pearson, a special adviser to the director on suicide research at the National Institute of Mental Health, said the CDC numbers confirm research she published last year that showed suicide growing among young minorities.
“It’s important to understand that those trends have continued into 2020 and 2021,” Ms. Pearson said.
The CDC report found that gun suicide rates among Blacks increased by 56% from 2015 to 2020 and by 38% among Hispanics from 2013 to 2020 after long-term declines for both. Among Whites, the gun suicide rate fell slightly from 2018 to 2020.
Suffocation suicide rates followed a similar pattern, falling among Whites while rising among Blacks and Hispanics. Poisoning suicides remained stable among Blacks and Hispanics but declined among Whites.
“After widening over most of the period due to greater percentage increases among non-Hispanic White people, differences in rates between non-Hispanic White and non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people for all three leading methods of suicide have narrowed since 2017-2018,” said Sally Curtin, the CDC statistician who wrote the report.
According to NYU Langone Health’s City Health Dashboard, an online resource that tracks metropolitan health statistics nationwide, the CDC numbers confirm that gun suicides are rising in many cities.
“Cities in states with the strongest gun violence prevention laws have about half the rate of gun suicides as those in states with the weakest laws,” said Dr. Marc N. Gourevitch, the dashboard’s architect. “Research also suggests that cities with fewer gun shops and more parks and walkable neighborhoods have lower rates of gun suicides.”
Others cite the impact of the pandemic on Black and Hispanic communities.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine said the first year of COVID-19 health restrictions caused “unwanted side effects” for minorities.
“The pandemic hit hardest the most vulnerable populations, both as a viral infection and mental health,” Dr. Galiatsatos said.
Some mental health experts noted that Black and Hispanic men often avoid therapy because they see it as a sign of failure.
“The perceived stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment can deter individuals in these groups from getting proper care,” said Michael Adamse, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida.