In The Know Zone

Who commits suicide?

While suicide occurs among people of every age, social, ethnic and religious group, there are significant differences in risk levels. White males account for 72% of all suicides, and, together, white males and females account for over 90% of suicide completions. [4]

Among adult white males, the rate of suicide increases with age. Elderly white men have exceptionally high suicide rates, reaching nearly double the national average for those between 75 and 84, and a staggering six times the overall current average for white men 85 and over.

African-Americans, by contrast, have a suicide rate only half that of Caucasians. The ratio of males to females among those who complete suicide are similar to those of whites. But the age demographics are strikingly different. After peaking among 25-34 year olds at about half the rate recorded among white males, the suicide rate among black males declines steadily until turning upward again between the ages of 55 and 75. But at age 85, when white male suicide spike upward alarmingly, the incidence among black males drops to almost zero. Black female suicide rates are consistently about half the rates for white females. And, at age 65, they become statistically negligible.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for both African-American and Caucasian teens, and self-inflicted death rates have increased among both white and black youngsters. The suicide risk for young African Americans, especially, underwent a disturbing increase over the past generation. Between 1980 and 1995, the rates of suicide for both white and black children aged 10-14 increased sharply – 120 percent among white youngster and 223 percent among black children. An even more disproportionate increase was recorded in black versus white suicides among teens 15-19. Black suicides increased 126 percent while the rate among white teens increased only 19 percent.

A more recent study by the Centers for Disease Control shows a slow but steady decrease in the number of teen suicides from a peak of 4,996 in 1994 to 4,234 in 2001 – a decrease of 18 percent. [5] It also reported a pronounced shift in methods of suicide among pre-teens and adolescents, in which hanging and other forms of suffocation replaced firearms as the most common means of suicide among those aged 10-14. Suffocation also rose markedly as the chosen form of suicide among those aged 15-19, but firearms deaths, though declining, continued to dominate in this age group. Some teen suicide experts speculated that the shift shows that public awareness efforts intended to keep guns out of the hands of children were responsible for the decrease in firearm suicides, but the writers of the CDC report said the reason for the shift in suicide methods is unclear. [6] The report did not break down the statistics by race.

Native Americans account for a relatively small percentage of the suicide totals, but have a disproportionately high rate of suicide – 1.5 times the national average. The suicide profile among American Indians and Alaska Natives also skews toward youth. Males age 15 to 24 account for 64 percent of Native American suicides. There is a significant variation in suicide among the various Native American tribes. In some, the rate is five times the national average. [7]


[4] Statistics relating to ethnicity are from the The American Association of Suicidology, available at http://www.suicidology.org, Washington, D.C., accessed 5/14/2004

[5] U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 11, 2004 / 53(22); 471

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Merck Manual, Suicidal Behavior, Sect. 15, Chap. 190, Merck & Co., © 1995-2004

In The Know: At Risk Pamphlet/ DVD Package
In The Know: At Risk DVD Package