The Myth of the (Black) Teen Suicide Epidemic

Recent alarms that suicide is skyrocketing among teenagers, especially African Americans, demonstrate (as with AIDS, crime, and other social issues) that NONE of the statistics and statements commonly made about young people by public agencies, private interest groups, and in the media can be trusted. The only way to present youth issues fairly today is to avoid repeating secondhand statistics, no matter how apparently trustworthy the source.

Authorities, from the US Centers for Disease Control to African-American physician Alvin Poussaint to media reports, assert that teenagers (particularly black males) are blowing themselves away in record numbers. From these chilling statistics, theories abound: modern youths are causing, and suffering, unprecedented, horrific dangers. More programs, more psychiatric interventions, more forced institutionalizations, and more abrogation of teenagers' rights are advanced in the name of protecting them from their rising urge to self-destruct.

In fact, the entire premise of a teen suicide epidemic, especially among blacks, is a textbook lesson in statistical malpractice. The same references interest groups miscite actually show that modern teens, especially African Americans, are less likely to die by their own hand than at any time in at least half a century, and probably ever. How, then, have authorities manufactured the frightening image of rising adolescent self-destruction? By omitting massive changes in how deaths are classified. Consider the following vital statistics compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics:

In 1970, 1,352 black teens (age 10-19) died from self-inflicted causes (drug overdoses, poisonings, falls, drownings, gunshots, hangings, suffocations, sharp instruments, and individual traffic crashes). Of these, 103 deaths were ruled suicides, 1,080 were ruled "accidents," and 169 were ruled "undetermined" as to intent (that is, the coroner couldn't figure out whether the person died accidentally or purposely).

In 1980, 767 black teenagers died from these same self-inflicted causes. Of these, 117 were ruled suicides, 596 were ruled "accidents," and 54 were ruled "undetermined."

In 1998, the latest year available, just 639 black teenagers died from these self-inflicted causes. Of these, 222 were ruled suicides, 375 were ruled "accidents," and 42 were ruled "undetermined."

Can you see what is happening here? On one hand, the total number of black teenage self-destructive deaths plummeted (1,352 in 1970, 639 in 1998). On the other, the number of black teenage deaths ruled as suicides leaped (103 in 1970, 222 in 1998). So, how can black teen suicide have "doubled" at the same time only half as many black teens are killing themselves? Let us consider a powerful possibility the experts overlooked.

In order to certify a death as a "suicide," a coroner must provide solid evidence (by a note, or investigation) that the death was intentionally caused. For lack of expertise or interest, pressure from families, religious concerns, insurance considerations, and other reasons, coroners are reluctant to rule a death (particularly a youthful death) as a suicide. A number of scientific studies have found that coroners of past decades ruled hundreds of self-inflicted teenage deaths as "accidents" (or as "undetermined" as to intent) that, given today's more sophisticated diagnostic techniques, would be ruled suicides. Especially in southern and rural areas, expending coroner time and money to investigate whether a black teen death was an accident or a suicide wasn't a priority. So, as Poussaint correctly suggests (in a point that refutes his claim of a modern "crisis"), black suicide has been "historically underreported."

A startling example: in 1970, coroners ruled 169 black teenage deaths as "undetermined" because they couldn't (or didn't bother to) ascertain whether a suspicious, self-inflicted gunshot wound or drug overdose was accidental or intentional. In 1998, the number of black teenage deaths ruled as "undetermined" had fallen to just 42. Note that the supposed "increase" in black teen suicides (up 119 since 1970) almost perfectly matches the "decline" in black teenage "undetermined" deaths (down 127) -- even without allowing for the bigger decline in self-inflicted deaths ruled as "accidents" (down 705)!

More evidence: in California, where coroners traditionally called in suicide experts to accurately certify questionable deaths, black teenage suicide DECLINED by 40 percent over the last three decades. Meanwhile, in southern states, black teen suicides "skyrocketed" from a scattering in 1970 to scores today. If some new, generational stressors are raising teen suicide, why is it falling sharply in California? These are the kinds of complications officials and experts are duty-bound to resolve before issuing alarming statements on emotional topics such as teen suicide -- yet they did not.

Whatever the politics, the bottom line is straightforward. In 1998, there were 800,000 more black teenagers in the population than in 1970. Yet, among black teen males, suicidal deaths fell sharply, from 1,093 in 1970 to 549 in 1998. Among black teenage girls, the drop in self-demise was even larger: 259 deaths in 1970, just 78 in 1998. By rate, then, today's average black teen male is 57 percent, and today's average black teen female is 73 percent, less like to take his/her own life than their counterparts of 30 years ago. In fact, fewer black teens died by self-destructive means in 1998 than in 1950, when the black youth population was only one-third as large!

Among teenagers of all colors, similar but less dramatic improvements are evident. While teenage deaths ruled as suicides increased from 1,253 in 1970 to 2,054 in 1998, self-inflicted deaths ruled as accidents plunged from 6,145 to 2,649 during that period, as did deaths ruled undetermined as to intent (518 in 1970, 190 in 1998). In 1998, teens had much lower rates of self-inflicted death than teens in the supposedly tranquil 1950s.

Two conclusions are evident. First, the teenage suicide "epidemic" is an artifact of changes in death classification, not an increase in youthful demise. Second, the reality is that teens display spectacular declines in self-inflicted hazard. Rarely do epidemiologists record such rapid decreases in fatalities over such a short period. Yet, the media and experts blare an incessant dirge that this increasingly healthy, resilient generation is killing itself at unheard-of rates.

Many groups justify their political tactic of "creating a crisis" as necessary to preserving support for the unquestionably fine, underfunded suicide prevention and mental health programs some youths need. But in the end, the myth of a teen suicide epidemic is not benign, no matter how humanely couched. It frightens the public that all young people are lethally out of control. It activates psychiatric industries lathering to profit, programs gearing up to manage, moralists eager to censor, police girding to suppress. Perhaps most disturbing, the "teen suicide" hype exposes the alarming extent to which major interests freely reduce young people to mere commodities to advance pet agendas when we should be pondering why -- despite more poverty, overcrowded schools, defunded services, dead-end jobs, family breakup, and incessant denigration by their elders -- today's younger generation is NOT descending into self-hatred and suicide.

More details can be found at Mike Males' Web site. Males can be reached at mmales@earthlink.net.

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