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Unequal: Ethnicity and poverty drive suicide rates

Suicides are up for people of color, who are also more likely to suffer from the ills of poverty.

Age-adjusted suicide rates for females, by race and ethnicity: United States, final 2019 and provisional 2020
Age-adjusted suicide rates for females, by race and ethnicity: United States, final 2019 and provisional 2020
National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality

There remains a resilient and misguided narrative that suicide rates, across all groups, skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not true. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a decrease in overall suicides in 2020 as compared with 2019. However, there were communities disproportionately impacted. When we control for ethnicity and income, we see spikes. Big spikes.

Some groups saw increases despite overall drop in suicide rates

According to the report by the CDC, based on data from 99 percent of all death records from 2020, the overall suicide rate in 2020 dropped 3 percent compared with 2019. This means that almost 46,000 people died from suicide in 2020, roughly 1,600 fewer than in 2019. Suicides among women saw an overall drop of 8 percent from 2019 to 2020 and men saw a 2 percent drop during the same period.

However, that only tells part of the story. Among Black girls and women, aged 10-24 years old, suicide rates rose. This group saw suicide rates increase more than 30 percent. Black boys and men in the same age group saw a 23 percent increase from 2019 to 2020.

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Hispanic/Latina women in that age group saw suicides increase 40 percent, and Hispanic/Latino men of the same age saw a 20 percent increase, according to the report. Meanwhile, Asian women ages 15 to 25 saw a nearly 30 percent increase in suicides.

Show me the money: Poverty as a factor

When we look at ethnicity, we see a significant increase in suicides from 2019 to 2020 and that needs a bright spotlight focused directly on it. This confirms our understanding of the role of white supremacy/privilege and racial disparities. We know ethnicity impacts a person’s health and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) folks are disproportionately denied access to healthcare as compared with White people. When we also look at income, we see another spike.

Around the globe, many governments provided their citizens money to survive during the lockdowns, with the United States being one of these countries. The pandemic funds often exceeded the typical government financial assistance and even working wages people would have otherwise earned. As a result, poverty dropped in the U.S. and suicide rates dropped along with it. As a comparison, in Canada, where the emergency government money was large and lasting, the suicide rate dropped roughly 30 percent. Although data on how poorer countries addressed cash transfers to poor people during the pandemic is inconclusive, it appears providing people with additional money reduced suicides.

Gary Norman
Gary Norman
Linking poverty to suicide is nothing new and is global in its impact. In 2017, the Journal of Epidemiology published an article that found suicide rates are the highest among the poorest people. According to an article in the British Medical Journal (The BMJ) from 2017, children of people on welfare are twice as likely to die by suicide. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2017 showed that homeless suicides are about 10 times as often as people with housing.

A paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2020 showed that those in poverty are more vulnerable to suicide because the strain drastically increases a person’s odds of developing a mental illness which can lead to suicide. The study looked specifically at depression and anxiety and showed a marked increase in the levels of mental illness for people in poverty.


When we attempt to look at both ethnicity and income and their relationship to suicide, we must ask new questions. Despite the evidence, many seem reluctant to recognize the link between suicide and people’s inability to meet their basic needs. What is the correlation between ethnicity, income and suicide? We need an intersectional lens and analysis to better understand.

Even in research studies or opinion pieces concluding that poverty raises suicide risk, authors will often fail to suggest addressing racism or poverty itself, instead suggesting traditional anti-suicide interventions such as increasing mental health services or access to suicide hotlines. These are necessary to capture the people in immediate need of intervention, but what if we can get people off the suicide path earlier?

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A Slate article from November of 2021 makes the insightful observation that if the diagnosis is money and the prescription is money, we might have to confront the fundamental building blocks of our economy. If we add ethnicity as a primary driver of suicides and the solution is to confront white supremacy, we have turned our understanding of this problem upside down.

To be clear, ending racial disparities and poverty would not end suicide. Many other factors are at play, and many of the traditional intervention strategies are needed and worthwhile. If data truly drove decisions, we’d look at systemic racial disparities that impact suicide and support individuals and families through difficult economic times, much like we did for part of the pandemic.

Gary Norman is the chief operating officer at Twin Cities Health Services and adjunct instructor at Augsburg University.