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Suicide and Race: Uncovering Patterns Underlying Increasing US Suicide Rates

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Are there specific communities that bear the brunt of suicide mortality? Certain studies have revealed that historically marginalised and economically deprived Indigenous populations are linked with higher rates of cluster suicides, especially in Canada, the US, and Australia. Public health officials need to consider that the risk of suicide contagion, social transmission due to insufficient interventions and resources, is real and must be countered.

Now, a consortium of public health experts from China, Japan, and Australia have analysed trends in suicide mortality in American Indian or Alaskan Native (AIAN) populations, while exploring health inequality among vulnerable populations. The team, led by assistant professor Bibha Dhungel from the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University, published their findings in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Other authors include Dr Fiona Shand (associate professor, University of New South Wales, Australia), Dr Jinghua Li (associate professor, Sun Yat-sen University, China), and Dr Stuart Gilmour (professor, St. Luke’s International University, Japan).

“In contrast to global suicide rates which decreased by nearly a third between 1990 and 2016, those in the United States saw a rapid increase,” explained Dr Dhungel. She further added: “We wanted to study these trends over time in the hopes of distilling underlying patterns specific to sex and the method of suicide.”

Studies have reported that the life expectancy of AIAN individuals is seven years less than that of the White population.

The team examined age-specific data on self-harm from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER database over the study period. They profiled suicides by poisoning, hanging, firearms, jumping from high places, and other methods and compared mortality rates per 100,000 persons by method and race for both sexes.

Suicide methods were classified using the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases.

Dhungel noted: “Suicide mortality rates among White and AIAN men increased rapidly between 1999 and 2020. The highest rates were observed among White individuals, followed by AIAN populations. Furthermore, the relative increase in rates since 2000 among AIAN men and women was 35% and 65%, respectively. In fact, suicide by firearm and hanging was prevalent among AIAN men, and suicide by hanging increased by nearly 200% among AIAN women.”

Furthermore, the team believes that these trends reflect historical trauma and that ongoing inequality and discrimination contribute to the high suicide rates in AIAN people, potentially rendering AIAN communities more vulnerable to mental health issues. The study underscores the imperative to address mental health in vulnerable populations and equip clinicians to identify high-risk groups associated with various suicide methods.

Dhungel concluded: “By implementing comprehensive and focused community-based suicide prevention strategies that are racially relevant, communities can work towards a more inclusive approach to suicide prevention. The goal is to reduce suicide rates by addressing the specific needs and challenges faced by different racial groups, ultimately fostering mental well-being and resilience across diverse populations.”

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