Young black suicide numbers shoot up

Sean Joe

Joe is tracking an alarming trend—gun-related suicides among young black males.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

Young black males are killing themselves. And now more than ever they’re doing it with guns.

A study by Sean Joe, assistant research professor at the School of Social Work, and his Portland State University colleague, Mark S. Kaplan, shows that deaths from self-inflicted gunshot wounds are on the rise among young African-American males.

The findings, published in the March 2002 issue of Psychiatric Services Journal, reveal that the rate of suicide among African-American males ages 15 to 24 increased by 14 percent from 1979 to 1997 while the rate among same-age white males decreased by 4.9 percent.

While explaining the increase is tricky, Joe has a few theories on why the numbers have climbed. Changes involving young African American males’ abuse of substances may be one explanation. Changes in how they handle stress and depression and their diminishing sense of self-efficacy may also be possibilities. Another culprit may be lack of access to quality mental health services.

He thinks that self-destructive behaviors may be linked to a continuum of risky behavior. “The same people who might be depressed or suicidal might also be the same young people who are substance abusers and users or the same young people who might be drinking alcohol or smoking.”

Yet, why the increase in suicides involving firearms? During this same period, firearms accounted for about 70 percent and 64 percent of all suicides among males ages 15 to 19 years and 20 to 24 years, respectively.

Joe said this puzzle remains unsolved given the restrictions of data available. “The way data is maintained and kept, researchers are limited by what type of analysis they can do on a public health issue,” he said.

Numbers for his research were obtained from compressed mortality files from the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data in those files are derived from death certificate information submitted by each state.

And while the data are silent on how these particular youngsters gain access to firearms, Joe believes the trend may be linked to the increased availability of guns that coincided with the onset of crack cocaine sales across the country.

To tackle these lingering questions, Joe will go to those who knew these young individuals best—their families. He’s well aware that primary data collecting for this type of research won’t be easy. “Suicide is such a taboo issue, regardless of race and ethnicity,” he said.

Joe hope that reaching out to families of suicide victims may help stem the epidemic’s spread.

“I’m not sure if we know how to support African American families who have experienced a suicide. How do you support the possibility that there could be a contagion factor for their younger children?” said Joe. “How do we help them cope? I don’t think we’re prepared. That’s a major issue that we would have to deal with.”

In the meanwhile, Joe advocates small measures that could make a big difference. He encourages health care professionals to regularly ask whether depressed or suicidal African-American youths have access to firearms.

Originally published on September 5, 2002