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Blog: The Diverse Face of Suicide

The Diverse Face of Suicide

In the United States, depression is the most common (if not, default) answer for the explanation of suicide. Typically, psychologists and therapists evaluating risk will ask their clients if they’re depressed, if they’re suicidal and if they have access to firearms. However, these questions may not be comprehensive enough to adequately assess the risks of suicidal behavior.
New research is revealing a need for more culturally competent risk-assessment tools that bring in internal and external cultural factors that may also play a part in influencing suicidal motivation.
Mary O. Odafe, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Houston who has reviewed the past decade’s worth of research on suicide in adults along with associate professor Rheeda Walker, PhD, and several other colleagues, says:
“Suicide vulnerability is not ‘one size fits all,’ but varies by ethnicity. By summarizing common characteristics that have been consistently shown to relate to suicidality across ethnic-minority groups, we hope to highlight unique, culture-bound factors that may otherwise be overlooked in traditional risk-assessment procedures.”
Examples of cultural characteristics related to suicide include but are not limited to the following:
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives. Intergenerational trauma—especially the legacy of forced removals of children for placement in boarding schools—may help explain this group’s disproportionately high rate of suicide.

  • African-Americans. This group has low suicide rates despite risk factors such as oppression and lack of access to care. Religiosity and stigma against suicide may protect them. 

  • Asian-Americans. This population has the United States’ lowest suicide rate. But perfectionism, pressures to achieve and low help-seeking behaviors can promote vulnerability to suicide. 

  • Latinos. Fatalism coupled with negative attitudes about seeking support outside the family may contribute to the growing rate of suicide in this population. 

Drawing on two decades of empirical research, researchers have now identified four broad suicide risk categories:
  1. A culture’s language of distress
  2. The stress of being a minority
  3. Family conflict
  4. Cultural beliefs that make suicide stressors and suicide acceptable or not 
Current suicide rates in the United States are highest among older men of European descent. However, it is projected that racial and ethnic minorities will make up more than half the U.S. population by 2050. Therefore, many researchers and practitioners believe it is imperative we seek out culturally attuned, intersectionally focused suicide intervention programs.

Suicide is a complex and fraught issue. Mark your calendar to attend our annual Northeast Wisconsin Suicide Prevention Summit, taking place virtually on Thursday, October 22. Communication is of paramount importance, and our theme this year is “The Language of Suicide.” Presenters will address this topic from multi-faceted viewpoints. Learn more and register.
American Psychological Association, “The Cultural Distinctions in Whether, When and How People Engage in Suicidal Behavior,” June 2018, Rebecca A. Clay.
American Psychological Association, “Unique Cultural Factors,” June 2018, Rebecca A. Clay.
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