updated 10/31/2006 5:40:23 PM ET 2006-10-31T22:40:23

More U.S. blacks attempt suicide than previously thought, according to a landmark study that could help explode the myth that black suicides are rare because of a mind-set that took hold during slavery.

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The first nationally representative study to look at attempted suicide among blacks found that about 70,000 of them try to kill themselves each year and 4 percent, or roughly 1.4 million, attempt suicide at least once in their lives.

That lifetime rate is similar to that of whites but higher than the 2.8 percent found among blacks in previous surveys.

Other research has shown that the actual suicide rate in whites is about twice as high as in blacks, though rising rates among young black men have narrowed the racial gap.

Still, there is a common misconception that suicide is rare in the black community because of cultural and religious beliefs dating back to slavery times. The study strengthens evidence showing that belief is false, said University of Michigan researcher Sean Joe, the study’s lead author.

The findings appear in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers analyzed data from a national survey involving 5,181 blacks age 18 and older. They were questioned about suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts between 2001 and 2003. Data on completed suicides was not included.

The study is the first to look at suicidal behavior among the two leading ethnic groups within the U.S. black community — African-Americans and Caribbean Americans.

Rate higher for Caribean-American blacks
The lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts was much higher among Caribbean-American black men, at 7.5 percent, suggesting that about 53,000 try at least once to kill themselves.

The reasons for that relatively high rate are uncertain. Although the study lacked data on how long Caribbean-American blacks and their ancestors had been in this country, it is likely many were more recent arrivals than African Americans and thus more vulnerable to frustrations with discrimination and other societal pressures, said Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatry professor at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus and expert on mental health issues in the black community.

“There is little or no information that is out there that is well-studied and well-documented. From that perspective, this is a huge contribution” that will help mental health professionals serve the black community, said Bell, who was not involved in the research.

Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, pronounced it a landmark study that adds considerably to knowledge about suicide risks in blacks and could improve prevention efforts.

Stigma of suicide
Historically, suicide was taboo in the black community going back to slavery times, at least partly because “it was really frowned on by the black church,” said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard University psychiatry professor and race relations specialist. “It was a stigma and it brought shame to your family.”

Blacks “thought life was supposed to be hard for them,” and that may have helped protect them from suicide, Poussaint said.

Interestingly, suicide attempts in the study were least common among blacks in the South, where that mind-set may linger from slavery times, he said.

While depression is strongly tied to suicidal behavior in whites, anxiety disorders were more common than depression in blacks who attempted suicide in the study. That is an important racial difference that could alert doctors to black patients who might be contemplating suicide, Poussaint said.

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