Suicide rate for minorities much lower, Census data indicate

School of Communication
University of Miami

In almost every facet of life, the gap between whites and minorities in America is clear. In socio-economic status, income, wealth and most causes of death Caucasian Americans seem to have the advantage.

However, there is one area in which this is not the case: suicide.

Every 38 seconds someone attempts to commit suicide.  It is also the third-leading cause of death among the ages of 15 to 24 and, in light of the recent suicides due to cyber bullying, many are finally taking notice of this tragedy.

However, there seems to be a racial gap between those who commit suicide and those who don’t.  According to the 2006 U.S. Census, the most recent data available, the suicide rate for whites has leveled off since the 1990s, but the rate at which the white population commits suicide is still almost twice as much as most minority groups.

Many people would assume that minority groups would have a higher rate of suicide because of the lack of access they have to key resources and their lower quality of life.  While there are no definite answers to this query a number of theories and opinions have risen, as to why this is not the case.

According to Joe Lortie, counselor and chaplain at the University of Miami, minorities may just have better ways of coping with the negative things that happen to them.  Lortie has worked at numerous psychiatric clinics and counseling centers, often working with college students struggling with suicidal thoughts.

“Depression usually begins when someone has experienced some type of loss,” said Lortie. “If minorities already have less, then another huge loss will not affect them as much as it would a white person, who has a lot.”

The suicide rate for African Americans reached a high in 1990 at 12.8 suicides per 100,000 people, but immediately began to drop a year later, with an average decrease of about 0.47 each year for black males.

“Self esteem is higher in African Americans,” said Dr. Amy Weisman, a psychology professor at the University of Miami as an explanation to the differences between minority and white suicide rates.

“African Americans score higher on measures of both individualism and collectivism than do whites. Individualism may give them more self esteem, and collectivistic values offer more community support in times of distress,” Weisman said. “Both of which may play into the lower suicide rates.”

However while African America suicide rates are half that of whites, one minority group stands apart from the rest; the Native American population has taken a different trend.

“In the U.S. non-Hispanic whites and Native Americans have double the rates as compared to blacks, Asian Americans and non-white Latinos,” said Dr. Jeremy Pettit, psychology professor at Florida International University.

The suicide rate of the Native American population has slowly increased in recent years with a rate of 3.8 in 2000 to a rate of 5.1 in 2006 for Native Americans females.  For males, it was 16.0 in 2000 and 18.3 by 2006.

“We don’t really know why it’s the case except that there are certain risk factors and protective features present in some racial groups and not in others,” said Pettit.

Some of these protective features can include a stronger attachment to religion for African Americans, and a stronger attachment to family for Asian Americans.

However, even for those in racial groups with a decreasing trend in suicide, everyone has a part to play in the prevention of suicide.

According to Patricia Gilmore, UM counselor suicide can be caused by a multitude of factors beyond depression.

“Warning signs can include irritability, changes in behavior, and an increase in alcohol consumption,” said Gilmore.

However while these signs are basic things to look out for, Pettit names three as most important: a sense of burdensomeness, which is the feeling of “people would be better off without me,” a sense of disconnection “I don’t belong,” and the ability to actually kill oneself.

“Once someone has a plan of action for how they will commit suicide, you know that it is more than just a thought,” Lortie warned.

“A lot of people want to die, but not everyone has the ability to do it,” said Pettit.

According to professionals in the field of psychology, the biggest mistake a person can make in dealing with suicide, is brushing off suicidal threats as a joke.

Visit for a list of warning signs or call the toll-free number 1-800-Suicide if you know of anyone who is contemplating suicide.

“People always leave signs as to whether they are going to kill themselves or not,” said Lortie. “We may not always understand why, but we can do something about it.”

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