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Dearth of data could cause undercounting of Black suicides: Study

chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-06-09 06:45

A suicide prevention sign is pictured on a protective fence on the walkway of the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey in New York, January 12, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

Suicides among Black people may be vastly undercounted due to a lack of data, according to an article published in Scientific American on Monday.

A study by Ian Rockett, professor of epidemiology at the West Virginia University in 2010 found Black American deaths are 2.3 times more likely than white deaths to be classified as undetermined at the time they occur.

That observation led Rockett and his colleagues to fear the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's report earlier this year of a 5.5 percent uptick in Black suicides was most likely an underestimate.

The article pointed out numerous reasons underlying the absence of good statistics: "Black Americans have typically been shut out of the mental health care system, and the pandemic worsened prospects of finding help. The lack of access to medical professionals means Black people are less likely to receive a mental health diagnosis, and there may be no record of previous suicide attempts prior to their death."

In a January 2021 study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, researchers at various institutions found Black suicides were more apt to be categorized as undetermined because coroners and medical examiners have less information to go on when investigating Black deaths.

"When there's less psychological documentation, they're more likely to be labeled as undetermined intent," said Rockett, a co-author of the paper. "This leads to suicide misclassification."

The language that turns up in death reports tends to confirm this conclusion.

An April 2022 study published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior documented a greater frequency of mental health information in reports of white suicides, likely resulting from more widespread access to care.

"Our research showed when a medical examiner is writing a narrative for a Black person, there's consistently less information recorded for a Black case, be it a suicide, homicide or an undetermined death," said Nusrat Rahman, an author of the study and now a senior researcher at the American Psychiatric Association.

Disparities in death investigations of Black people also relate to the absence of suicide notes, she said.

A 2018 study that looked at data from the National Violent Death Reporting System found a fifth of Black Americans who die by suicide leave notes, compared with a third of white Americans.

The reasons for these differences have yet to be studied, although the stigma of suicide within the Black community may be a possible contributing factor.

Rahman said further research is needed to examine why Black death reports are shorter and whether racial bias is a motivating factor.

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