The first detailed study of suicide among black Americans dispels the myth that blacks are less prone to suicide than whites are.

With 4.6 percent of Americans making a suicide attempt, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. It's not much different for black Americans -- 4.1 percent attempt suicide, find Sean Joe, PhD, MSW, of the University of Michigan, and colleagues.

Earlier community surveys suggested that suicide wasn't as much of a problem for black Americans as for white Americans. But the new data, from household interviews with a national sample of 5,181 black men and women in the U.S., show this isn't so.

"Black Americans have levels of suicidal thought and behaviors that are comparable with the general population," Joe and colleagues conclude. Their report appears in the Nov. 1 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Black Subgroups at Highest Risk

Joe and colleagues find that more than one in 10 black Americans has had suicidal thoughts. These ideas are most likely to progress to an actual suicide plan in the year after they first arise.

As might be expected, black Americans with any psychiatric disorder have an eightfold higher risk of attempting suicide. Those with three or more psychiatric disorders are 17 times more likely to attempt suicide.

Other risk factors aren't so obvious. Compared with the overall 4.1 percent suicide-attempt rate for black Americans:

--7.5 percent of Caribbean black men (men from the Caribbean or men of Caribbean descent) attempt suicide.

--4.9 percent of black women (but only 3.1 percent of black men) attempt suicide.

--5.9 percent of young blacks -- those born in 1975 or later -- attempt suicide.

--5.8 percent of blacks from the Midwest, and 5.6 percent of blacks from the Northeast, attempt suicide.

--6.1 percent of blacks with less than a high school education (but only 2.4 percent of those with a college education) attempt suicide.

--5.8 percent of never-married blacks (but only 2.9 percent of married blacks) attempt suicide.

Joe and colleagues urge doctors to get over the idea that black Americans aren't at risk of suicide. They note that most black Americans who attempt suicide have tried to get help from a health professional.

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By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCE: Joe, S. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 1, 2006; vol 296: pp 2112-2123.