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Racial Discrimination Linked to High Suicide Rates, New Report Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • Data shows that daily discrimination has an effect on depression and suicidal ideation.
  • There is a disparity in the external causes of depression between Black and White Americans.

A recent report published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior focuses on the capability of suicide within adults based on the presence of perceived discrimination. This study utilizes a cited theoretical framework for suicide, the Interpersonal—Psychological Theory of Suicide.

This theory shows that both suicidal desire and suicidal capability are necessary factors for someone to die by suicide. This capability for suicide is defined as the physical capacity to inflict self-injury with lethal results. The potential to override this desire is what separates those that ideate from those that complete suicide. Recurring harmful events like racial discrimination aid in wearing down the ability to override this desire, resulting in higher suicide capability for Black Americans, according to the new research.

What Did the Study Show?

The study found tangible links to both physical and mental health for members of the Black community who are forced to navigate stressors daily. The Black participants within the study reported discrimination in association with their depression or suicidal ideation. 

The results include feedback from 173 Black adults and 272 white adults, with a majority being women and primarily all participants being single and unmarried. The research participants completed a survey with questions about discrimination, depression, and suicidal ideation.

This study looks at how repeated occurrences of discrimination for Black participants can wear down the ability to overcome the potential for suicidal behavior. "Capability for suicide is hypothesized to occur as a result of repeated exposure to physically painful and psychologically provocative life events, as prolonged exposure to these events facilitates habituation of the fear and pain of suicidal behavior," the study notes.

Within this study, discrimination is defined as, "negative actions and behaviors that are directed at another person or group as a result of their marginal social status membership." The study notes that discrimination is both "painful and provocative," which supports the data that shows an increase in depression and suicidality for adults of color, especially Black adults.

Measuring Discrimination

The survey used a few different measures of discrimination, depression, and suicidality for this study, including the Everyday Discrimination Scale (EDS), Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II), Painful and Provocative Events Scale (PPES), Adult Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire (ASIQ), and Acquired Capability for Suicide (ACSS).

The questions for these measures ranged from more acutely related to discrimination, such as “You have been called names or insulted” or “You have been threatened or harassed" to more broad questions such as, "Have you ever imagined killing yourself?"

The frequency of these thoughts was also measured. For example, in response to the discrimination-based inquiries, participants responded to questions on a four-point scale ranging from "never" to "four or more times" resulting in responses that correlate with the level of discrimination.

What This Means for You

Because there is increasing awareness around the effects of daily stressors related to race and discrimination, health professionals are integrating these theories and data findings into their work and practices.

While larger studies and efforts for systemic and institutional racism are factors in daily discrimination, the new study suggests that intentional participation in social support and emotional regulation can aid in the effects of these stressors.

Supporting Theories

Cultural Trauma

Cultural trauma is defined as a state that occurs when a people’s cultural worldview has been destabilized to the point where it does not effectively meet its TMT [terror management theory] function of providing a buffer against basic anxiety and uncertainty.

"People who have faced discrimination often have a theme of feeling less than which in turn makes them show up less in their lives," says Brittany Johnson, LMHC, author of Get Out of Your Own Way, 21 Days to Stop Self Sabotage. "After they have faced discrimination, it makes one question their sense of being."

Brittany Johnson, LMHC

People who have faced discrimination often have a theme of feeling less than which in turn makes them show up less in their lives. After they have faced discrimination, it makes one question their sense of being.

— Brittany Johnson, LMHC

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory (TMT) is both a social and evolutionary psychology theory developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and detailed in their book, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.

This theory suggests that psychological conflict results from having a natural self-preservation instinct alongside the realization that death is both unpredictable and inescapable. The outcome of this conflict is terror, which is managed through a combination of escapism and cultural beliefs that act to counter reality. 

How Can This Study Be Helpful?

White study participants reported experiences of discrimination, but the frequency and severity were lower. Responses showed that for Black participants, these instances served as especially traumatizing. According to researchers, this was the first-known study that found a link between painful and provocative events that were perceived as discriminatory and the capability for suicide.

"These findings demonstrate that for Black adults, perceived discrimination serves as a sufficiently painful and provocative experience that is directly associated with higher capability to overcome one's inherent fear of death and an increased capacity for self-harm," the study reports.

Considerations regarding daily stressors are important when analyzing both probability and causes of depression and suicidal tendencies. When assessing risk and harm of underserved populations, particularly with Black clients, discrimination should be an integral data point of research, especially when connected to suicide potentiality. 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database or learn more about the option of online therapy.

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Article Sources
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  4. Halloran M. African American Health and Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome: A Terror Management Theory Account. J Black Stud. 2019;50(1):45-65. doi:10.1177/0021934718803737 

  5. Solomon S, Greenberg J, Pyszczynski T. The Worm At The Core: On the Role of Death in Life. New York: Random House; 2015.