Skip to Content
Advanced Search

Suicide among African-Americans is a youthful phenomenon


Gibbs, J.T. (1988, Spring). "Suicide among African-Americans is a youthful phenomenon." Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 18 (1), pp. 73-87.


Too many young African-Americans are destroying their lives either by suicide, homicide, or in fatal accidents. In the past 25 years, the overall suicide rate of African-American youth (ages 15-24) has more than doubled; males between ages 20 to 24 account for most of the increase. The female rate increased from 1.3 to 2.7 per 100,000, while the suicide rate for males mushroomed from 4.1 to 11.5 per 100,000.

The article has four goals: to examine methodological issues, to evaluate three conceptual perspectives, to discuss sociocultural factors that contribute to different rates of suicide, and to propose implications for assessment and strategies for early intervention.


Suicide is just one form of violent behavior that characterizes the self-destructive lifestyle of many low income, inner-city African-American youth. The three leading causes of death for males ages 15-24 are homicide, accidents, and suicide.

These three types of violent death appear to be related. Many accidents may be intentional and many lethal confrontations with police may be deliberate.


Karen, a recent graduate of an Ivy League college, was having difficulty in deciding whether to work or return to graduate school. She could not communicate her ambivalent feelings toward whites or her self doubts to her parents. She broke up with her boyfriend, withdrew from her friends, and argued constantly with her parents. Late one afternoon following a heated argument with her father, she was driving alone on the freeway when her car suddenly accelerated and crashed into a bridge abutment. Karen was killed instantly on the eve of her 22nd birthday.



Three conceptual perspectives may help explain the epidemic of suicide:

  • The sociological approach is seen in the theory of Emile Durkheim (1867-1962). There are three types of suicide all seen in the individual’s inability to be comfortable with society. The impact of the unstable environment for many African-American youth is extremely traumatic.
  • The psychological perspective can be traced from Freud’s psychoanalytic concept that suicide represents inverted anger resulting from the loss of a loved object.
  • The ecological perspective suggests that youth suicide rates increase in proportion to the increase in age group population. Increase in competition for scarcer resources and opportunities leave youth vulnerable for suicidal behavior.


Some sociocultural factors are positive and help prevent African-American youth from suicidal behavior. These protective elements include the strong family, the church, fraternal and social organizations, community schools, extended kin, and social support networks.

Still, other sociocultural factors add risk to the African-American youth: the breakdown in fmaily structure, decreased influence of the church, declining impact of the fraternal and social organizations, deterioration of the inner-city schools, and the weakening of social support systems may enhance suicidal behavior.

The suicide rate is higher for African-American males than for females. It is suggested that child rearing strategies may attribute to the difference. Males are disciplined more harshly, trained for independence earlier, and positively reinforced for aggression and sexuality. Females receive more nurturance, later independence training, and more reinforcement for academic training.


Clinicians should focus on three aspects of assessment. First, African-American youth at risk are likely to be verbally abusive, report physical problems, act out and flounder in school, and have relationships with their peers that are filled with conflict. Next, they may also be involved in persistent risk-taking, sexual responsibility, substance abuse, and delinquency. Finally, the life stress indicators should be examined (loss of parent, poverty, frequent mobility, health problems, child abuse, and others). It is important for doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, and others to be familiar with the indicators and symptoms that put youth at risk.

Clinics should be located in inner-city schools giving access to youth in need of counseling. Prevention services should be located in inner-city neighborhoods. African-American youth identified as "at risk" should be provided with individual and family counseling. Police and community relations need improvement. Positive role models must be provided for youth whether at risk or not.

Early intervention may help prevent some suicides. As long as there remains a wide gap between the American dream of success and the ability to realize that dream, African-American youth will remain at risk.


  1. Is the problem of suicide in African-American youth larger than perceived?
  2. Related to suicide, what is the impact of society on African-American youth?
  3. How can support networks for African-American youth be strengthened?
  4. Can you identify the symptoms of an African-American youth at risk? List a few.


    • African-American youth are killing themselves at an incredibly high rate. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Society has created an unstable environment which may facilitate inverted anger. Such instability may be a primary cause of the suicide epidemic.
    • Assessment and intervention are possible if the symptoms of at-risk African-American youth are readily recognized and treated by the many available resources.

Robert Parady cCYS