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Black Teen Suicide Rate Rising Rapidly Since '80s

Study: CDC report shows deaths among young African Americans are up by 114% over last 18 years. Pace is increasing faster than that of white youths.

March 20, 1998|RENE SANCHEZ | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — The suicide rate of African American teenagers has risen sharply since the 1980s, especially in the South, and is increasing at a pace much faster than that of white teenagers, a new study concludes.

White teenagers are still more likely to commit suicide than blacks. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a report to be released today, says its latest findings suggest that suicide is an "important and growing problem" among young African Americans and may be linked partly to the growth of the black middle class.

In the report, researchers cite no conclusive cause of the rising suicide rate but say that since many more African Americans are being reared in upwardly mobile families, more of them also may be experiencing the stresses such an environment can create. "These youths may adopt the coping behaviors of the larger society in which suicide is more commonly used in response to depression and hopelessness," the report states.

Although the number of young blacks who commit suicide is still small--less than five of every 100,000 black teenagers--the rate is much more comparable now to the suicide rate of white teenagers nationally, which also is rising.

In 1980, the suicide rate for young whites was 157% greater than it was for young blacks, according to the report. Today, it's only 42% greater.

The suicide rate of African Americans between the ages of 10 and 19 has increased by 114% since 1980, the report found. The largest increase by far has occurred in the South, where the suicide rate among young blacks has grown by 214%.

A total of 3,030 young African Americans have committed suicide since 1980, the report found, and nearly all of the deaths involved the use of firearms.

The study's authors and other scholars say that one consequence of rising prosperity and social integration for blacks over the last few decades has been that some have distanced themselves from family and church and are much more isolated now in times of crisis.

Others are skeptical because they say there is little evidence of young blacks in large numbers adopting other destructive habits of young whites in middle-class or affluent families. Bulimia is one example cited.

The researchers also offer other possible explanations. More African American families may be willing to disclose a teenager's death as a suicide now, they suggest, and despondent youth have more access to lethal weapons and drugs than before.

The access to weapons coupled with the profound despair that many young black men experience in poor communities, where jobs or uplifting role models can be scarce, may be the real root of the rising suicide rates, some African American leaders say.

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