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Updated 8:00 AM March 9, 2009

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Black female teens at increased risk for suicide

Black adolescents nationwide report a lifetime prevalence of 7.5 percent for suicidal thoughts and a 2.7 percent for attempts on their lives, a University study shows.

During a 12-month period, suicidal thoughts and behaviors involved 3.2 percent and 1.4 percent of the respondents, respectively, says Sean Joe, the study's lead author and an assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

Joe and his colleagues say these attempts may occur up to 10-40 times more often than completed suicides and are risk factors for future suicide.

The data also confirmed findings from other studies that females were three times more likely than males to think about suicide.

Suicide rates among blacks adolescents historically have been low compared with their white counterparts, but the gap has narrowed. Until this study, nationally representative data regarding non-fatal suicidal behaviors, especially among blacks, had not been available.

This survey included responses from 1,170 African-American and Caribbean black adolescents age 13-17 years. The researchers estimated that at some point before they reach 17, 4 percent of black teens overall, and more than 7 percent of black teen females, will attempt suicide.

Psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety issues, were significant predictors of attempted suicide rates among black youths. Those with at least three disorders were about seven times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

But almost half of those sampled did not report having a disorder, Joe says.

"This is important because it suggests we can't just look for signs of psychiatric disorders to determine if a teen plans to commit suicide," he says.

African-American (4.1 percent) and Caribbean females (2.1 percent) attempted suicide more often during a 12-month period than male counterparts (1.7 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively).

Caribbean females had the highest lifetime and 12-month prevalence rates, while male Caribbeans had the lowest. African Americans were 4.55 times more likely than Caribbeans to attempt suicide.

Adolescents living in low-income households with an annual family income between $18,000 and $31,999 were least likely to report having attempted suicide. Teens living in modest-income households with incomes between $32,000 and $54,999 were most likely to report having attempted suicide.

Additional research is warranted to clarify if black adolescents who attempted suicide did so because they were never properly diagnosed, had less access to mental health care, or tend to engage in self-injurious behavior irrespective of the onset of psychiatric disorders, the researchers say.

Joe co-authored the study with Raymond Baser of the Institute for Social Research and Harold Neighbors, Cleopatra Caldwell and James Jackson, all with the School of Public Health and ISR.

The findings appear in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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