(CNN) — The rates of suicide among African-American children have doubled in the last two decades, surpassing the rates among white children, which dropped over the same time period, according to a new study.
Researchers looked at the suicide rates among children ages 5 to 11 between 1993 and 2012. The rates overall did not change over these years, but the rates among black boys rose from 1.78 to 3.47 per 1 million. In contrast, suicides among white boys declined from 1.96 to 1.31 per million. In just the 5-year period between 2008 and 2012 there were 41 suicide deaths among black boys, and 73 among white boys.
“Suicide rates in the U.S. have historically been higher among white individuals across all age groups,” said Jeffrey Bridge, epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, who led the research, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. “We were very surprised to see higher suicide rates among black children over time,” added Bridge, who is also associate professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University.
In fact, the researchers waited for numbers from 2012 to be available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was their source of data, to have more confidence in what they were seeing. It did not change their findings.
The suicide rates among girls, although about five times lower than those for boys, followed the same racial trend. The rates among black girls increased from 0.68 to 1.23 per 1 million, although the rise was not statistically significant. Meanwhile the rates among white girls appeared to be stable, at about 0.25 per million.
During the first time period that the researchers studied, 1993 to 1997, suicide rates were similar for black and white boys. Suicide was the 14th and 12th leading cause of death among black and white children, respectively, over those years.
However, rates among black boys had overtaken those for white boys by 2003. Between 2008 and 2012, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death among black children, and the 11th among white children.
The authors of the study did not investigate the reasons for the increase but speculate that suicide rates may be higher for black children for various reasons, including the possibility that they may have more exposure to violence and aggression than white children and be less likely to get help for depression and suicide attempts. In addition, black children tend to go through puberty at a younger age, and research suggests that children are more likely to harm themselves after puberty. It is unclear at this stage if any of these factors, or others, underlie the trend, Bridge said.
“Suicide is pretty rare in all kids before puberty,” said Dr. David Shaffer, professor of pediatrics and child psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, who was not involved in the research. Still, the current study shows “a very interesting aberration” that should be studied more, he said.
The study found that hanging and suffocation were the most common suicide methods, accounting for 78.2% of the suicide deaths. Shooting was the second most common method, involved in 17.7% of the cases. Whereas the rates of gun-related suicide decreased in white boys, there was no change in the rates among black boys over the time period, suggesting that efforts to improve gun safety could be helping white, but not black, boys.
At the same time, the study found an increase in the rates of suicide due to hanging or suffocation among black boys, while the rate did not change among white boys. A total of 657 children ages 5 to 11 committed suicide between 1993 and 2012. Suicide is about 50 times more common in adolescents ages 12 to 19. In 2012, it was the second leading cause for that older age group. The authors state that programs for children even before they display suicidal behavior could help reduce suicide rates among adolescents.
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