Race and suicide

Suicide is generally understood as a cry of desperation. If so, you’d expect that the poorer, less-powerful, less-mobile members of society — black people, Hispanics, and women — would be the most suicidal. The opposite is true. While black people and Hispanics have low savings, and mobility, they rarely commit suicide. White Protestants and Indians are the most suicidal groups in the US; Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, Moslems, Orientals, are significantly less prone. And black, non-Hispanic women are the least suicidal group of all — something I find rather surprising.

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

Aha, I hear you say: It’s the stress of upward mobility that causes suicide. If this were true, you’d expect Asians would have a high suicide rate. They do not, at least not American Asians. Their rate (male + female) is only 6.5/100,000, even lower than that for Afro-Americans. In their own countries, it’s different, and Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans commit suicide at a frightening rate. My suspicion is that American Asians feel less trapped by their jobs, and less identified too. They do not feel shame in their company’s failures, and that’s a good, healthy situation. In Korea, several suicides were related to the Samsung phones that burst into flames. While there is some stress from upward mobility, suggested by the suicide rates for Asian-American females being higher than for other woman, it’s still half that of non-hispanic white women, and for women in China and Korea. This suggests, to me, that the attitude of Asian Americans is relatively healthy.

The only group with a suicide rate that matches that of white protestants is American Indians, particularly Alaskan Indians. You’d figure their rate would be high given the alcoholism, but you’d expect it to be similar to that for South-American Hispanics, as these are a similar culture, but you’d be wrong, and it’s worthwhile to ask why. While men in both cultures have similar genes, suffer financially, and are jailed often, American Indians are far more suicidal than Mexican Americans. It’s been suggested that the difference is religiosity or despair. But if Indians despair, why don’t Mexicans or black people? I find I don’t have a completely satisfactory explanation, and will leave it at that.

Age-specific suicide rates.

Age-specific suicide rates, US, all races, 2012, CDC.

Concerning age, you’d probably guess that teenagers and young adults would be most suicidal — they seem the most depressed. This is not the case. Instead, middle age men are twice as likely to commit suicide as teenage men, and old men, 85+, are 3.5 times more suicidal. The same age group, 85+ women, is among the least suicidal. This is sort-of surprising since they are often in a lot of pain. Why men and not women? My suspicion is that the difference, as with the Asians has to do with job identification. I note that middle age is a particularly important time for job progress, and note that men are more-expected to hold a job and provide than women are. When men feel they are not providing –or worse –see themselves as a drag on family resources, they commit suicide. At least, this is my explanation.

It’s been suggested that religion is the consolation of women and particularly of black women and Catholics. I find this explanation doubtful as I have no real reason to think that old women are more religious than old men, or that Protestants and Indians are less religious than Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, and Jews. Another difference that I (mostly) reject is that access to guns is the driver of suicide. Backing this up is a claim in a recent AFSP report, that women attempt suicide three times more often than men. That men prefer guns, while women prefer pills and other, less-violent means is used to suggest that removal of guns would (or should) reduce suicide. Sorry to say, a comparison between the US and Canada (below) suggests the opposite.

A Centers for Disease Control study (2012) found that people doing manual labor jobs are more prone to suicide than are people in high-strew, thinking jobs. That is, lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen, construction workers, carpenters, miners, etc. All commit suicide far more than librarians, doctors, and teachers, whatever the race. My suspicion is that it’s not the stress of the job so much, as the stress of unemployment between gigs. The high suicide jobs, it strikes me, are jobs one would identify with (I’m a lumberjack, I’m a plumber, etc. ) and short term. I suspect that the men doing these jobs (and all these are male-oriented jobs) tend to identify with their job, and tend to fall into a deadly funk when their laid off. They can not sit around the house. Then again, many of these jobs go hand in hand with heavy drinking and an uncommon access to guns, poison, and suicidal opportunities.


Canadians commit suicide slightly more often than Americans, but Canadians do it mostly with rope and poison, while more than half of US suicides are with guns.

I suspect that suicide among older men stems from the stress of unemployment and the boredom of sitting around feeling useless. Older women tend to have hobbies and friends, while older men do not. And older men seem to feel they are “a burden” if they can no-longer work. Actor Robin Williams, as an example, committed suicide, supposedly, because he found he could not remember his lines as he had. And Kurt Gödel (famous philosopher) just stopped eating until he died (apparently, this is a fairly uncommon method). My speculation is that he thought he was no longer doing productive work and concluded “if I don’t produce, I don’t deserve to eat.” i’m going to speculate that the culture of women, black men, Hispanics, Asians, etc. are less bound to their job, and less burdened by feelings of worthlessness when they are not working. Clearly, black men have as much access to guns as white men, and anyone could potentially fast himself to death.

I should also note that people tend to commit suicide when they lose their wife or husband; girlfriend or boyfriend. My thought is that this is similar to job identification. It seems to me that a wife, husband, or loved one is an affirmation of worth, someone to do for. Without someone to do for, one may feel he has nothing to live for. Based on the above, my guess about counseling is that a particularly good approach would be to remind people in this situation that there are always other opportunities. Always more fish in the sea, as it were. There are other women and men out there, and other job opportunities. Two weeks ago, I sent a suicidal friend a link to the YouTube of Stephen Foster’s song, “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and it seemed to help. It might also help to make the person feel wanted, or needed by someone else — to involve him or her is some new political or social activity. Another thought, take away the opportunity. Since you can’t easily take someone’s gun, rope, or pills — they’d get mad and suspicious –I’d suggest taking the person somewhere where these things are not — a park, the beach, a sauna or hot-tub, or just for a walk. These are just my thoughts, I’m a PhD engineer, so my thinking may seem odd. I try to use numbers to guide my thought. If what I say makes sense, use it at your own risk.

Robert Buxbaum, June 21, 2017.Some other odd conclusions: that Hamilton didn’t throw away his shot, but tried to kill Burr. That tax day is particularly accident prone, both in the US and Canada, and that old people are not particularly bad drivers, but they drive more dangerous routes (country roads, not highways).

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