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The Aberrations in Male Teen Suicide Data
Around 1995, the rate of suicide for teenage boys—the age/gender demographic with the highest suicide rate—went down quickly. For caucasian boys, it went from 12 per 100,000 to 9 within four years based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data—the largest and only sizable decline in suicide rates on record. For African American boys, it went from 10 to 6 in roughly the same time frame.
The same trend doesn’t appear for girls, and there’s no apparent explanation in CDC reports about the glaring change—such as the decline in inner city violence, gun restrictions, or the popularization of the internet.
The trend wasn’t consistent across states. In some states, it was a measured decline, but in others it was very sudden. In some states, male teen suicide simply stopped for years.
Between 1990 and 1997, there were 18 male teen suicides a year on average in Hawaii. In 1998, there were zero.
Similar for Rhode Island. In Washington, D.C. and Delaware, caucasian, male teen suicides just didn’t happen for numerous years starting in 1990. California went from 447 a year in 1995, to 352 in 1996.
For other states, the numbers increased on average, like Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah. Some areas, like Fresno, California, have seen no discernible change in 55 years.
The issue of a growing suicide rate prior to this was well known. Between 1969 and 1980, the number of caucasian teen suicides more than doubled—from 1,700 a year to over 3,800—only to flatline around then. Health and Human Services (HHS) set an objective that “by 1990 the rate of suicide among people 15 to 24 years of age should be below 11 per 100,000.”
But while the attributes of suicides is well known, there’s little information surrounding the causes, and the data can be faulty.
According to a 1987 paper from the CDC and HHS, suicide can be difficult to define for medical coroners, and there is pressure to label some deaths suicides and others not. There is little information in death certificates to infer causes, and there is no system in place to surveil unsuccessful suicide attempts.
The limited accuracy and reliability of suicide statistics are, in part, attributable to the lack of a commonly accepted and applied definition of suicide.
In addition to variability in the criteria for classifying suicide, personal biases, incomplete information, and pressures from the family and community probably contribute to a marked underreporting of suicide. Without explicit criteria for making a decision, coroners or medical examiners may be even more susceptible to such pressures.
Based on prior CDC research, most male teen suicides are from firearms, and suicides sometimes outpace homicides. For women, hanging and poisoning are more common.
Native American Counties
The highest prevalence is in western rural states, with Alaska consistently having the highest rate. A research paper from 1987 listed the states with the highest rates as Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico.
The counties with the highest crude rate of suicide deaths are often largely native American. For 1998-2016 data, the highest rate is in Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska (previously Wade Hampton Census Area), which is 95 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native based on 2020 Census data. Crude death rate for male teen suicides there is 176.2—over ten times the national average. The same goes for all counties in the top 10: each one has a majority native population.
What’s more significant is the steady increase in total suicides since 2007. Not only is it the first continual increase in suicides since 1980, but as a percentage of total deaths in the teen male population it now represents 21 percent of all deaths—up from 14 percent in 2005.
While there is plenty of CDC research behind that trend, but the exact cause is not yet know. As a 2019 report noted:
For males, age-adjusted suicide rates increased significantly between 1999 and 2017 for all race and ethnicity groups except non-Hispanic API, with the largest increase observed among non-Hispanic AIAN males (71%, from 19.8 to 33.8).
The crude rate of suicides for caucasian males is now approximately back to what it was before the 1995 drop.
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