Adolescents who feel they experience discrimination are more likely to report suicidal thoughts and behaviors, according to research published in Psychiatry Research. The findings indicate students of color, or those identifying as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority, experienced 1.5 times higher odds of suicidal ideation, 1.6 timers higher odds of creating a suicide plan, and 1.6 times greater odds of attempting suicide.
Adolescents are at increased risk for suicide. According to the CDC, it is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 18. In addition, Philip Baiden and his colleagues find suicide numbers have been declining for some; in 2019, “non-Hispanic Black adolescents reported the highest rate of suicide attempts during the past year (11.8%), followed by Hispanic adolescents (8.9%), and non-Hispanic White adolescents (7.9%) (Ivey-Stephenson et al., 2020).”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or 800-273-8255) or visit the NSPL site.
While reported rates are high, it is also understood students of color often underreport suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Consequently, looking for what environmental factors may make this group more vulnerable to suicide is a meaningful endeavor.
Perceived racial discrimination (PRD) has been studied extensively with adults and has been shown to have consequences for mental health, suicidal behaviors, and overall well-being. Adults of color, especially Black adults, report having experienced discrimination in the education system. As the increased risk of suicide and critical educational experiences intersect at adolescence, Baiden and the team resolved to explore the relationship between PRD and suicidal thoughts and behaviors for students of color.
Data used for the study was collected from the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES). The CDC developed and used the survey to assess the consequences of COVID-19, collect data related to health risk behaviors, and identify where health risk behaviors overlap. The number of responses collected met the criteria for a nationally representative sample. The research team utilized 3,241 ABES responses from students who self-identified as a member of a racial or ethnic minority.
Of the chosen respondents, 21% reported experiencing PRD “sometimes”, “most of the time” or “always.” Approximately 27.6% of respondents said they “rarely” experienced PRD, and 51.4% reported having never experienced PRD. After analysis and statistically controlling for the impact of other variables like cyberbullying, feelings of hopelessness, and poor mental health during COVID-19, a relationship between PRD and suicidal thoughts and behaviors was revealed. Further analysis of the data also indicated students of color who also identified as LGBQ were at higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
There were some acknowledged limitations to the study. First, the cross-sectional design of the research prevents any cause-and-effect conclusion, and future longitudinal studies would serve to confirm these findings. Second, the data collected is from a secondary source and limited access to other relevant variables like socioeconomic status and childhood experiences. Finally, the researchers were limited in their exploration of intersecting identities like gender and religion.
Despite these concerns, Baiden and the team consider their work meaningful for those who provide therapeutic interventions for adolescents of color and educators. They conclude, “Understanding the association between PRD and suicidal behaviors among adolescents is critical to addressing equitable health outcomes and developing targeted suicide interventions for racial/ethnic minority adolescents. From a public health perspective, efforts should be made to address PRD in schools.”
The study, “Perceived racial discrimination and suicidal behaviors among adolescents in the United States: Findings from the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey“, was authored by Philip Baiden, Catherine LaBrenz, Henry Onyeaka, Chioma Muoghalu, Julia Nicholas, Samantha Spoor, Estah Bock, and Lindsay Taliaferro.