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Suicide rates fall again — but not for young adults and some people of color

Suicides dropped by 3% in 2020, according to new CDC data, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019 after nearly two decades of increases.
Justin Paget
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Suicides dropped by 3% in 2020, according to new CDC data, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019 after nearly two decades of increases.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

When the pandemic began in early 2020, some worried that mass isolation and a spike in unemployment could cause suicide rates to skyrocket.

Now, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the opposite happened: Suicides dropped by 3% in 2020, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019 after nearly two decades of increases.

According to the report, roughly 46,000 people died by suicide in 2020, about 1,600 fewer than the year before.

The drop was most striking in April, when 14% fewer people died by suicide than in April 2019.

"Suicide is less predictable than other causes of death," said Sally Curtin, a statistician at the CDC and lead author on the report. "You can have an increase in risk factors for suicidal behavior, such as mental health issues, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and financial stress ... but it does not necessarily translate into an increase in deaths."

The decline in April came at a time when a majority of Americans were under a stay-at-home order; the unemployment rate peaked at 14.7%, with more than 20 million jobs lost that month alone; and crisis hotlines were reporting a massive increase in calls.

Just under 3,500 Americans died by suicide that month, some 550 fewer than in April 2019 — by far the largest year-over-year drop in the report — even as drug overdoses, another so-called "death of despair," rose.

"This drop is quite noticeable and interesting and probably unexpected for most people," Curtin said. "It definitely deserves more attention, more research to really try to find out what exactly happened."

Suicide rates are falling for whites, but climbing for others

The overall decline was driven almost entirely by a drop in suicides among white people, who die by suicide at rates higher than almost any group in the country. While America is 62% white, roughly 75% of suicides in 2020 were carried out by white people.

"The sheer numbers are just so high for whites," Curtin said.

Before 2019, suicides had risen almost every year between 2000 and 2018, soaring by 35% in that time. For white people, that trend has begun to reverse itself, especially among middle-aged people.

But for other ethnic groups, the study shows, numbers are still climbing, particularly among men.

The suicide rate for Hispanic men rose by 5% in 2020. Rates also went up for Black men and American Indian-Alaska Native men, though the report warned those increases were not statistically significant.

Some groups of young people saw double digit increases

Some groups of young people of color — notably Black people between the ages of 15 and 34 and Hispanic people between the ages of 25 and 34 — saw double digit increases in suicide rates in 2020, a troubling finding that tracks with those of other studies, including one published in September in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that found the rise in suicide rates among Black girls outpacing other groups.

"When we look at suicide in the research, it's very much white youth and white older men. And unfortunately, that doesn't help us in terms of creating prevention programming for Black youth and for Hispanic youth," said Arielle Sheftall, principal investigator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research and lead author on the study, who spoke to NPR's Here & Now when the study was released in September.

Although the overall declines are an improvement worth noting, Curtin says, the fact remains that suicide rates are still very high when examined in a longer-term context. Though fewer people died by suicide in 2020 than in 2019, the number is still much higher than it was in any year before 2017.

"Yes, we've had these two years of drops. But the number is still historically high, as is the rate," Curtin said.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.