A two-year decline in yearly suicides ended in 2021, as suicide rates rose among younger Americans and people of color, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For decades, suicide rates among Black and Hispanic Americans were comparatively low, around a third the rate recorded among white Americans. But a gradual shift is underway, as suicide rates rise in populations most affected by the pandemic.
Between 2018 and 2021, the suicide rate among Black people increased by 19.2 percent, from 7.3 to 8.7 per 100,000. The swiftest rise took place among some of the youngest Black people, those ages 10 to 24. The suicide rate in that group rose by 36.6 percent, from 8.2 to 11.2 per 100,000.
Among people ages 25 to 44, suicide rates rose 5 percent overall, and even more significantly among Black, Hispanic, multiracial and American Indian or Alaska Native people. The suicide rate remained highest among Native American and Alaska Native people, increasing by 26 percent, from 22.3 to 28.1 per 100,000, in that period.
The only racial group that saw a decrease in suicide rates across age cohorts was non-Hispanic white people. That population saw a decline of 3.9 percent, from 18.1 to 17.4 per 100,000. Suicide deaths in the white population numbered 36,681, more than three-quarters of the total number.
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Suicide rates are rising in communities hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, said Dr. Sean Joe, a professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.
“That’s what we’re unpacking at this point, is cumulative stress,” Dr. Joe said. “People couldn’t bury people the way they needed to bury them. They couldn’t grieve in the same way. You couldn’t gather in the same way, to cope with these losses. So there’s a lot of unattended-to grief as well.”
A troubling aspect of the data, he said, is that suicides are occurring at progressively younger ages in nonwhite populations. “We tend to lose older generations of whites when it comes to suicide,” he said. “But among people of color, it’s always the young, not out of the fourth, third, or even approaching the fifth decade of life.”
The study did not examine reasons for the divergence in suicide rates among racial groups, but suicide may be influenced by financial stress, social isolation, substance use, barriers to health care and access to lethal means like firearms, among other factors, said Deborah Stone, lead behavioral scientist at the C.D.C.
The number of suicides has been climbing for decades and reached its highest point, 48,344, in 2018. Many expected the pandemic to cause a spike in suicides, but in 2020 the numbers dropped for the second year in a row, to 45,979.
That dip seemed to come to an end in 2021, with a total of 48,183 suicides.
Previous pandemics, wars and natural disasters have also seen a temporary drop in suicide rates, as communities mobilize to weather a crisis, said Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Collective emergencies bring a “retrenching, with psychological girding and resilience and working against a common enemy,” Dr. Moutier said. “That will wane, and then you will see rebounding in suicide rates. That is, in fact, what we feared would happen. And it has happened, at least in 2021.”
Dr. Stone, of the C.D.C., noted that this also occurred during the 1918 influenza pandemic. “In the longer-term, some populations hardest hit by the crisis will continue to struggle with the impact of the crisis, which may have compounded pre-existing inequities,” she said.
The data revealed good news, as well: There was a 12.4 percent overall decrease in the suicide rates among older Americans ages 45 to 64, with notable drops among white, Hispanic and Asian people in that age group.
This positive trend, Dr. Moutier noted, sometimes occurred alongside a negative trend in younger age groups. “What is changing, in terms of the environment and access to lethal means, and culture?” she said. “It’s almost like we have different subcultures, depending on your generation and the community you’re living in.”
One factor in rising suicide rates in younger age groups is the “remarkable weakening of our mental health response system,” which has made it extraordinarily challenging to get care for children and adolescents in crisis, said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.
He offered the example of a friend, who, alarmed when their child expressed suicidal thoughts, waited 36 hours in an emergency room, was sent home after a ten-minute examination “with no resources whatsoever,” and then waited weeks for admission to an outpatient program.
“It’s just become completely untenable,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised that some kids are experiencing a worsening of their symptoms to the point where suicide is more common.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.