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Vol. LXII, No. 13
June 25, 2010

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Racial Disparities in Suicide Rates May Be Due to Culture Rather Than Genes

On the front page...

Historically, African Americans have dealt with many social stressors such as poverty, discrimination and high unemployment rates. So why do African Americans have lower suicide rates than whites, Asian Americans and Native Americans?

Dr. Sean Joe, a University of Michigan School of Social Work researcher of suicidal behavior among African Americans, addressed this question on May 4 at the NIMH lecture “Suicide Research Among Black Americans: Uncovering the Secrets of this Racial Advantage.” He pointed out that risk factors for suicide are not simply tied to money and success as many people might think. Football player Deion Sanders, for example, attempted suicide while at the height of success in his career.

Many clues from research on suicide risk factors instead point to social factors as being more important than wealth, success or psychiatric illness in explaining this racial disparity. The fact that African Americans in the Midwest have significantly higher suicide risk than those in the South hints at the importance of social factors. Further supporting this view are statistics on the lifetime risk of suicide among African Americans of various age groups. The risk for attempting suicide among African Americans born after 1975 is 9 times higher than that for older African Americans.


Epigenetics STEP forum presenters included (from l) Dr. Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Dr. Kjersti Aagaard-Tillery of Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Nancy Press of Oregon Health & Science University and NIEHS’s Archer.

University of Michigan researcher Dr. Sean Joe thinks race is a protective factor in risk of suicide.

What social differences may account for the differing rate of suicide between African Americans in the South and in the Midwest? One difference is that African Americans in the South are more orthodox in their religious views. Religion, particularly one’s subjective experience of religion and one’s level of service attendance, has been found to be associated with a lower risk for suicide. The reason for this is not clear, however; it may partly be due to religion’s impact on social connectedness and attitudes towards suicidal behavior.

The increase in lifetime suicide rates among younger African Americans similarly seems to be tied to social factors. An interesting fact that may help in explaining this increase is that, while the rate among males has increased, the rate among females has remained relatively constant.

Joe explained that the younger generation of African American males has a different social experience than its older counterpart that is responsible for differences in attitudes between the two generations. The younger generation has a more accepting attitude towards suicide. They may also have a greater tendency to attribute both positive and negative life outcomes to their own actions rather than to events outside of their control. This attributional orientation allows them to take credit for their successes, but it can also be harmful because it may cause them to take too much responsibility for their failures and negative outcomes.

The fact that African Americans in the Midwest have significantly higher suicide risk than those in the South hints at the importance of social factors.

Furthermore, the younger generation of African American males also has different pressures and social stressors. They may have the notion that they should “act tough and look cool.” In other words, they may have a conceptualization of masculinity that may both put pressure on them and prevent them from seeking help. They may feel that help-seeking is seen as a weakness. Females, on the other hand, are not afraid to talk to others if they are feeling down and also tend to be more religious than men.

Joe explained that there are really two traditions of race theory. One is biologically based and the other is socially based. The biologically based theory defines race by genetic factors. The socially based definition of race, however, includes factors such as how people view themselves in relation to others, how they interact with others and how they feel about themselves. Understanding these social factors is essential to understanding the rise in suicide rates among African American males and the high rates of suicide in the United States in general. NIHRecord Icon

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