Why The Armed Forces Are Looking to Black Women For Answers: Suicide in the Military, Part I

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” ~ Arnold J. Toynbee

Suicide is the ultimate expression of abandonment of hope, of an inability to see a better future, of the experience of agony too great to suffer a moment more. It is a death that comes when  the spirit has gone before it.

And I’d like to say that in a country with chances and opportunities like ours, it is unheard of. But I’d be lost in a fantasy world.

Let me paint a general picture for you of the state of suicide in this country.

1. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death, but rates range across specific demographic subgroups (eg, it is the 8th leading cause of death among Native Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and men).
2. In a surprising statistic, the elderly, particularly white men aged 85)+, have the highest suicide rate (51.6/year per 100 000 population). [#1-2 from Joe et al 2006]
3. The suicide rate for all ages and genders of blacks was 5.22 per 100,000, slightly less than half the overall U.S. rate of suicide. [Centers for Disease Control 2011]
4. The ratio of male to female suicides is 4.1. [National Vital Statistics Report for 2008, last year for which they have final data]

And here, perhaps, we start to reach the crux of the matter:

5. The suicide rates among black women held steady at about 2/100,000 for through the 70s and 80s. [Griffith and Bell, 1989]

6. The suicide rate for black women was about 3 per 100,000, from 2005-2009, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Are you getting the picture here?  The group with the lowest suicide rate in the country is black females–hands down.


Suicide Rates by Race and Gender

In Goldsmith’s Risk factors for suicide: Summary of a workshop, which wrote up the results of a conference on all aspects of suicide, the contribution of speaker Ronald Marris, known suicide expert and  Professor at the Univesrity of South Carolina, looms large.

Marris spoke again on the surprisingly low rate of suicide in African American women, reframing it so that the numbers astonish once more.

He determined that, controlling for age, the risk of a white male versus a black female suiciding is almost 10 to 1. Comparing rates for the oldest sections of each group, the ratio rises to 18 to 1.

In short, claimed Marris,

African-American women, particularly in midlife, are virtually immune to suicide.

 This amazing information has not gone unnoticed by some, who have a vested interest in the information. For let’s return to suicide statistics for a moment, and add another, horrific piece of the puzzle:

7. The U.S. active-duty military is comprised predominantly of young male adults; about 50% are aged 17-26 (Eaton, Messer, Wilson, & Hoge, 2006). According to CDC data (2004), suicide is the third leading cause of death among this age group generally.
8. In 2005, the reported Department of Defense (DoD) average suicide rate was 11.4 per 100,000 (ranging from 8.9 for the Air Force to 13.7 for the Army), and it moved to the second leading cause of death.  [Statistics 7-8 from the Free Library.]
9. HOWEVER, suicides among American’s armed forces averaged nearly one a day so far this year, and have become the second leading cause of death among the military. There were  154 suicides  among active-duty troops in the first 155 days of this year. That is about  50 percent more fatalities than occurred in Afghanistan this year,  according to Pentagon statistics.

BBC-CNN writes that

The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

This is serious bad news–and a problem that must be addressed–now, if not yesterday.

So Veterans Affairs, privy to the same statistics, is looking to black women for hope.

Perhaps, goes the thinking, if the VA can learn the protective factors behind the low suicide rates for these women, they can use that information to help their men and women in uniform.

What will the VA find–and will it help them?

Let’s examine those questions in the next parts of the series on suicide in the military.


Cook JM, et al. Suicidality in Older African Americans: Findings From the EPOCH Study.  American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2002; 10:437–446.

Dervic K, Oquendo MA, Grunebaum MF, et al.  Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt. American Journal of Psychiatry 2004; 161:2303-2308. .

Ferraro KF, Koch JR. Religion an Health Among Black and White Adults: Examining Social Support and Consolation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1994; 33(4):362-375.

Garlow SJ, Purselle D, Heninger M. Ethnic differences in patterns of suicide across the life cycle. American Journal of  Psychiatry 2005; 162:319-323.

Goldsmith SK. Risk factors for suicide: Summary of a workshop. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

Griffith EEH, Bell C. Recent Trends in Suicide and Homicide Among Blacks. JAMA 1989; 262(16):2265-2269.

Gulshan Y, Melendez C, McShan Y, Presenters. “Healing & Recovery Through the Power of Diversity!”: Multi Cross-Cultural Workshop. California Network of Mental Health Clients; June 27-28, 2011.

Joe S, et al. Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Lifetime Suicide Attempts Among Blacks in the United States. JAMA  2006; 296:2112–2123.

Patterson KL. A Longitudinal Study of African American Women and the Maintenance of a Healthy Self-Esteem. Journal of Black Psychology 2004; 30( 3):307-328.

Watlington CG,  Murphy CM. The Roles of Religion and Spirituality Among African American Survivors of Domestic Violence. Journal of Clinical Psychology 2006; 62(7):837-857.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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