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Cultural Differences in Suicidal Behavior [Cultural and Ethnic Diversity]

by William W. Deardorff, Ph.D, ABPP.

4 Credit Hours - $79
Last revised: 07/07/2021

Course content © Copyright 2021 - 2022 by William W. Deardorff, Ph.D, ABPP. All rights reserved.


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Sad happyfaceThis course focuses on cultural diversity issues as they relate to suicidal behavior.    We have other courses on suicide prevention, but those are more focused on actual techniques and interventions.  In contrast, this course focuses on the relationship between cultural issues and suicide behavior.  The course begins with a discussion of suicide and a discussion of diversity.  The course then discusses the relationships between the two. The course content includes the following along with three articles (links to these public domain articles are provided).      










Learning Objectives

Suicide in the United States

     Terms and Definitions

Diversity in the American Population

     Definitions and Concepts

Diverse Population and Suicide

     Ethnic and Race Diversity

     Sexual Orientation Diversity

     Religious Diversity

     The Elderly as a Diverse Population





Most therapists receive very little formal training on the assessment and management of the suicidal patient and essentially no training on diversity and suicide behavior.  It has been estimated that less than 40% of graduate programs provide curriculum-based education in these areas (Oordt et al., 2009).  This means that most practitioners must learn about this important aspect of practice from during a supervised experience, continuing education, or self-taught when the need arises.  This is certainly not an ideal situation for equipping professionals with managing one of the most important issues in practice.  The lack of attention to formal education in this area is likely due to its low base rate.  But even with the low base rate, suicide does not occur on a continuum; if completed, it is “all or nothing”, underscoring the importance of having expertise in this area. This course will specifically review cultural and diversity issues related to suicidal behavior.  Many suicide risk assessment guidelines and tools do not include information on how to take into account diversity as it might relate to the suicide behavior (including risk assessment, prevention, management, etc.).  This course will review the important association between diversity and suicide behavior.



Learning Objectives



Discuss trends in diversity and suicide in the US population

List four terms and definitions related to suicidality

Explain the difference between culture, race and ethnicity

Discuss suicide behavior related to ethnic/race, religion, and LGBT groups

Discuss suicide in the elderly



Seeing a patient with suicidal ideation or behavior is probably one of the most challenging and emotionally-charged areas in mental health practice.  It is also highly likely to occur on one or more occasions in a professional’s career.  In fact, the possibility of confronting a situation involving a suicide or suicide attempt is ever-present in practice.  Consider the following statistics presented in the Table (See Schwartz & Rogers, 2004; Tsao & Layde, 2007 and references for a review):



Clinicians and Suicidal Patients



More than 50% of psychiatrists and 20% of psychologists report having lost at least one patient to suicide


Between 20% and 50% of psychiatry and psychology trainees report losing a patient to suicide during internship or residency


It is estimated that over 20% of counseling psychology trainees will be exposed to clinical situations involving suicide at some point during their training


In at least one study, 71% of mental health counselors in practice reported having had at least one client attempt suicide


In the same study, 28% had at least one client commit suicide


Most clinician have no training in suicide behavior and diverse population



Suicide in the United States


The following Table presents an overview of US statistics related to suicide.  This is general data and more detailed and updated information can be found on the NIMH and CDC web sites.  As will be seen, this information is important since it provides data that enters into the suicide risk assessment process.  Those in these static higher risk groups might be assessed more carefully and more frequently as part of mental health treatment.  For instance, according to this demographic data, an 85-year-old white male already has increased risk regardless of any other factors.



 U.S. Statistics Related to Suicide



In 2007, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 34,598 deaths.


The overall rate was 11.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.


An estimated 11 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death.


Suicide was the seventh leading cause of death for males and the fifteenth leading cause of death for females in 2007.


Almost four times as many males as females die by suicide.


In 2007, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.


Of every 100,000 young people in each age group, the following number died by suicide:

   Children ages 10 to 14 — 0.9 per 100,000

   Adolescents ages 15 to 19 — 6.9 per 100,000

   Young adults ages 20 to 24 — 12.7 per 100,000


Nearly five times as many males as females ages 15 to 19 died by suicide. Just under six times as many males as females ages 20 to 24 died by suicide.  



The following Table present statistics related to diverse groups including the elderly, ethnicity/race, and sexual orientation (In suicide statistics and risk assessment, adolescents also represent a special group for increased risk and those statistics are presented in the previous Table).



U.S. Statistics Specifically Related to Diversity and Suicide



Older Americans are disproportionately likely to die by suicide. Of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, 14.3 died by suicide in 2007. This figure is higher than the national average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population


Non-Hispanic white men age 85 or older had an even higher rate, with 47 suicide deaths per 100,000


Of every 100,000 people in each of the following ethnic/racial groups below, the following number died by suicide in 2007:


  Highest rates:

     American Indian and Alaska Natives — 14.3 per 100,000

     Non-Hispanic Whites — 13.5 per 100,000

  Lowest rates:

     Hispanics — 6.0 per 100,000

     Non-Hispanic Blacks — 5.1 per 100,000

     Asian and Pacific Islanders — 6.2 per 100,000


LGBT individuals are two times as likely to have a lifetime history of a suicide attempt compared to heterosexual individuals


40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25 (James et al., 2016)



Suicide Behavior: Agreeing on Terms and Definitions


When discussing suicide behavior, it is important to be able to agree on terms and definitions to insure accurate communication (Rudd, 2008; Rudd et al., 2006).  In some cases, patients with different characteristics will need to be assessed and managed very differently (e.g. history of suicide attempts versus instrumental suicide-related behavior versus self-harm).  Current terminology can be found in the following Table.



Definition of Terms Related to Suicidality 



Suicide – an intentional, self-inflicted act that results in death.  Synonymous with “completed suicide.”


Suicide attempt with injuries – An action resulting in nonfatal injury, poisoning, or suffocation where there is evidence that the injury was self-inflicted and that the person intended at some level to die.


Suicide attempt without injuries – A potentially self-injurious behavior with a non-fatal outcome, for which there is evidence that the person intended at some level to kill himself/herself.


Instrumental suicide-related behavior – Potentially self-injurious behavior for which there is evidence that the person did not intend to die (zero intent) and the person wished to use the appearance of intending to commit suicide in order to attain some other end (seek help, punish others, receive attention).  Instrumental suicide-related behavior can occur with injuries, without injuries, or with fatal outcome (accidental death).


Suicide Threat – Any interpersonal action, verbal or non-verbal, stopping short of a directly self-harmful act, that a reasonable person would interpret as communicating or suggesting that a suicide act or other suicide-related behavior might occur in the near future.


Suicidal Ideation – Any self-reported thoughts of engaging in suicide-related behavior.


Self-harm – an intentional and often repetitive behavior that involves the infliction of harm to one’s body for purposes not socially condoned and WITHOUT suicidal intent.



When discussing suicide behavior, it is important to distinguish between some other key concepts beyond defining terms.  For instance, some risk factors are associated with suicide (potentiating risk factors and/or chronic risk factors) and some are known to actually increase the risk of suicide (acute or warning signs).  Potentiating or chronic risk factors tend to be static and do not change much over time.  These risk factors do not necessarily indicate that a person is at increased risk for an imminent attempt. On the other hand, acute or warning signs are dynamic and include those factors that suggest suicidal behavior may be set in motion in the very near future. Warning signs may suggest the heightened risk of suicide in the short term even in the absence of potentiating/chronic risk factors.  Alternatively, potentiating/chronic risk factors may predispose a person to a chronic heightened risk of suicide in which warning signs may not be present (but when they emerge, may represent an emergent situation).  The interplay between potentiating risk factors and warning signs is discussed in the other suicide courses and is beyond the focus of this course.  Related to diversity, various diversity and cultural issues might represent potentiating risk factors (for example, alienation from one’s culture of origin, culture conflict with the dominant culture, and experience of discrimination related to sexual preferences, a lack of social connectedness) or protective factors (e.g. self-perceived importance of religion, social connectedness, etc.).



Key Concepts in Suicide Risk Assessment and Management



Potentiating Risk Factors – these include such things as unemployment, financial difficulties, social isolation, prior trauma or abuse, previous suicide behavior, chronic mental illness, physical illness, etc.  The factors tend to be more static (not rapidly changing) and can form the basis of a chronic suicide risk level (low to high).


Warning Signs – are factors that may set into motion the process of suicide in the short term.  These may be conceptualized as occurring in the acute phase of suicidality. These can occur as an exacerbation of a chronic suicide baseline.  


Protective Factors – these are factors that have been associated with a reduced risk of suicide.  Although risk factors are more strongly associated with suicidality, interventions often focus on enhancing protective factors while reducing risk factors.



In addition, it is important to distinguish between chronic suicidality and acute suicidality, since these patients must be managed differently.  Chronic suicidality presents differently from acute suicidality, and the treatment approach is different.  For instance, hospitalization of the chronically suicidal person (absent significant warning signs) has little value in preventing suicide and may have a negative effect (repeated admission, destruction of therapeutic alliance).  The chronically suicidal patient may present symptoms over the long term (e.g. months or years) but still must be assessed and monitored for emergence of acute suicidality (warning signs).  Treatment of the chronically suicidal patient often includes addressing the underlying reasons for the symptoms (e.g. personality disorder, as a means to express distress). In these cases, the clinician must often tolerate the suicidality over extended periods and provide treatment in the least restrictive setting (e.g. outpatient) even when there is a slightly elevated risk.  If diversity issues are significant in the suicide behavior, the clinician may be faced with managing the suicide behavior over the long term while the diversity issues are addressed.


Diversity in the United States


This section includes a review of American diversity based on the results of the 2010 census and more recent findings (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2018). Of course, the 2020 Census information is not yet available.  An examination of the diversity trends relating to the composition of the American population will provide a context for a discussion of issues related to diversity and suicide behavior. The section then discusses concepts and definitions related to cultural diversity and cross-cultural mental health treatment. The 2010 census revealed that the country’s population is growing rapidly and its racial and ethnic composition are ever-changing.  Minority groups of the past and present continue to expand and have grown considerably.  The following is a brief summary of some of the 2010 census data taken directly from the government website.  Data from the census underscores the importance of multiculturalism in mental health services.




The examination of racial and ethnic group distributions nationally shows that while the non-Hispanic white only population is still numerically and proportionally the largest major race and ethnic group in the United States, it is also growing at the slowest rate. As of 2018, This continues to be the case at 60% (KFF, 2018). Conversely, the Hispanic and Asian populations have grown considerably, in part because of relatively higher levels of immigration. The overwhelming majority (97 percent) of the total U.S. population reported only one race in 2010. This group totaled 299.7 million. Of these, the largest group reported white-alone (223.6 million), accounting for 72 percent of all people living in the United States. The black or African-American population totaled 38.9 million and represented 13 percent of the total population. Approximately 14.7 million people (about 5 percent of all respondents) identified their race as Asian alone. There were 2.9 million respondents who indicated American Indian and Alaska Native alone (0.9 percent). The smallest major race group was Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone (0.5 million), which represented 0.2 percent of the total population. The remainder of respondents who reported only one race, 19.1 million people (6 percent of all respondents), were classified as "some other race" alone.


Nine million people reported more than one race in the 2010 Census and made up about 3 percent of the total population. Ninety-two percent of people who reported multiple races provided exactly two races in 2010; white and black was the largest multiple-race combination. An additional 8 percent of the two-or-more-races population reported three races and less than 1 percent reported four or more races. The Census showed that interracial or interethnic opposite-sex married couple households grew by 28 percent over the decade from 7 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2010. A higher percentage of unmarried partners were interracial or interethnic than married couples. Nationally, 10 percent of opposite-sex married couples had partners of a different race or Hispanic origin, compared with 18 percent of opposite-sex unmarried partners and 21 percent of same-sex unmarried partners.



Summary of 2010 Census Findings Related to Diversity (with 2018 KFF Updates)



Hispanics now comprise approximately 16% of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million. (KFF reports 18%)


The Black or African American population represents 13% of the total population. (KFF report 12%)


Approximately 5% of all respondents identified their race as Asian alone. (KFF reports 6%)


Approximately 3% of the total population, or 9 million people, reported more than one race. (KFF reports 3%)


Interracial or inter-ethnic opposite-sex married couple households grew by 28% over the last decade from 7% in 2000 to 10% in 2010.   



One can also look at the racial composition stratified by generation to see how diversity in the population is increasing. The following Figure displays these results.  As can be seen, for those in the GI Generation, the multicultural rate is about 17%.  This gradually increases generation by generation to its current level of almost 51%. The Milliennials and Gen-Next are the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history and this trend is likely to continue.  


culture: Definitions and Concepts


There is considerable controversy and overlap in definition and concepts related to race, culture, and ethnicity (APA, 2003; Helms & Talleyrand, 1997; Phinney, 1996). In this section, we define important terms and concepts related to diversity.  




According to Matsumoto and Jones (2009), culture can be defined as a unique meaning and information system that is shared by a group and transmitted across generations, and that allows the group to meet basic needs of survival, pursue happiness and well-being, and derive meaning from life (p. 327). According to the Multicultural Guidelines, culture can also be defined as the belief systems and value orientations that influence customs, norms, practices, and social institutions, including psychological processes (language, caretaking practices, media, educational systems) and organizations such as media and educational systems (APA, 2003; Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). Inherent in this definition is the acknowledgement that all individuals are cultural beings and have a cultural, ethnic, and racial heritage. Culture has been described as the embodiment of a worldview through learned and transmitted beliefs, values, and practices, including religious and spiritual traditions. It also encompasses a way of living informed by the historical, economic, ecological, and political forces on a group. These definitions suggest that culture is fluid and dynamic, and that there are both culturally universal phenomena as well as culturally specific or relative constructs.




Definitions of the terms “race” and “ethnicity” are varied and these terms are often used interchangeably whether appropriate or not. Historical definitions of race often refer to physical and biological characteristics.  In a more precise definition, the term “race” refers to groups of people who have differences and similarities in biological traits deemed by society to be socially significant, meaning that people treat other people differently because of them. For instance, while differences and similarities in eye color have not been treated as socially significant, differences and similarities in skin color have.


Dictionary definitions of race are as follows: (1) A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them. (2) A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the Celtic race. (3) A genealogical line; a lineage. (4) Humans considered as a group.


The biological basis of race has, at times, been the source of fairly heated debates in psychology (See the Multicultural Guidelines for a literature review). Helms and Cook (1999) note that “race” has no consensual definition and that, in fact, biological racial categories and phenotypic characteristics have more within-group variation than between-group variation. The definition of race is often considered to be socially constructed, rather than biologically determined. Within this definition, race is the category to which others assign individuals on the basis of physical characteristics, such as skin color or hair type, and the generalizations and stereotypes made as a result. Thus, “People are treated or studied as though they belong to biologically defined racial groups on the basis of such characteristics” (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997).




Similar to the concepts of race and culture, the term “ethnicity” does not have a commonly agreed upon definition. In general, ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. That is, ethnicity is a shared cultural heritage (rather than biologically and physically based characteristics). The most common characteristics distinguishing various ethnic groups are ancestry, a sense of history, language, religion, and forms of dress. Ethnic differences are not inherited, they are learned.


Another definition is as follows: Ethnicity is the acceptance of the group mores and practices of one’s culture of origin and the concomitant sense of belonging. However, individuals may have multiple ethnic identities that operate with different salience at different times (Sedikides and Brewer, 2001; Hornsey and Hogg, 2000).


Multiculturalism and Diversity


According to the APA Multicultural Guidelines, the terms “multiculturalism” and “diversity” have been used interchangeably to include aspects of identity stemming from gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or age. All of these are critical aspects of an individual’s ethnic/racial and personal identity. The term “multicultural” can also be defined more narrowly as meaning interactions between racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. and the implications for education, training, research, practice, and organizational change.


The concept of diversity has been widely used in employment settings. The application of the term began with reference to women and Persons of Color, underrepresented in the workplace, particularly in decision-making roles. It has since evolved to be more encompassing in its intent and application by referring to individuals’ social identities including age, sexual orientation, physical disability, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, workplace role/position, religious and spiritual orientation, and work/family concerns.




In the Multicultural Guidelines, the term “culture-centered” is used to encourage the mental health professional to use a “cultural lens” as a central focus of professional behavior. In culture-centered practices, mental health professionals recognize that all individuals including themselves are influenced by different contexts, including the historical, ecological, sociopolitical, and disciplinary. According to Pedersen, “If culture is part of the environment, and all behavior is shaped by culture, then culture-centered counseling is responsive to all culturally learned patterns” (Pedersen, 1997, p. 256). For example, a culture-centered focus suggests to the mental health practitioner to consider that behavior may be shaped by culture, the groups to which one belongs, and cultural stereotypes including those about stigmatized group members. According to Pedersen (2008), “A culture centered approach to counseling recognizes culture as central and not marginal, fundamental and not exotic, for all appropriate counseling interventions” (page 5). 




Acculturation refers to the gradual physical, biological, cultural, and psychological changes that take place in individuals and groups when contact between two cultural groups takes place (Cardemil & Battle, 2003; Chun, Organista, & Marin, 2003).  When an individual or group moves to an area dominated by an existing cultural group, there is pressure on the newcomers to conform and accommodate to the dominant culture’s way of life and to devalue or abandon their own cultural roots.  Concepts of acculturation have been applied to racial/ethnic minority groups interacting with the larger American Caucasian culture, as well as the usual conceptualization of immigrant groups adjusting to novel environmental situations. 


Diversity Issues and Suicidal Behavior


As part of this course, please read the article “Suicide and Culture” (Lester, 2008) which can be found in the public domain here. (If you have trouble with the link, the article can also be found here). In reading the article, please pay close attention to the following highlights:



Suicide and Culture - Article Highlights



Societal suicide rates differ widely across nations and cultures.


Possible explanations for these differing rates include physiological, psychological/psychiatric, social composition, societal differences, and cultural influences.


The most popular explanation of the variation in national suicide rates focuses on social variables. These social variables may be viewed in two ways: (1) as direct causal agents of the suicidal behavior, or (2) as indices of broad social characteristics which differ between nations.


Suicidal behavior is differently determined and has different meanings in different cultures.


An issue that has become important in recent years is the impact of the pervasive Western culture on the suicidal behavior of those living in less modern cultures. The high suicide rates in some native American and Canadian groups and in some Micronesian islands has made this an issue of grave concern rather than mere academic debate.


Cultures often come into conflict. For example, the conflict between the traditional Native American culture and the dominant American culture has often been viewed as providing a major role in precipitating Native American suicide. Three major sociological theories have been proposed for explaining the Native American suicide rate: One theory focuses on social disorganization. The dominance of the Anglo-American culture has forced Native American culture to change and has eroded traditional cultural systems and values. A second theory focuses on cultural conflict itself. The pressure from the educational system and mass media on Native Americans, especially the youth, to acculturate, a pressure which is opposed by their elders, leads to great stress for the youths. A third theory focuses on the breakdown of the family in Native American tribes. Parents are often unemployed, substance abusers and in trouble with the law, and divorce and desertion of the family by one or more parents is common.


Four possibilities are open to the non-dominant culture: integration-maintaining relations with the dominant culture while maintaining cultural identity; assimilation-maintaining relations with the dominant culture but not maintaining cultural identity; separation-not maintaining relations with the dominant culture but maintaining cultural identity; and marginalization-not maintaining relations with the dominant culture and not maintaining cultural identity.


There are large cultural differences in the incidence of suicidal behavior.  Also, culture influences the methods used for committing suicide and the reasons for doing so.



Diversity in Sexual Orientation, Race/Ethnicity, and Religion


As part of this course, please read Diversity & Suicidal Behavior: Fact Sheet. This is a fact sheet prepared by Section VII of APA Division 12 (2012) which is in the public domain here (if you have trouble with the link, the fact sheet can also be found here).



Diversity in Sexual Orientation, Race/Ethnicity, and Religion – Fact Sheet Highlights



Attending to issues of sexual diversity in suicide prevention refers to the consideration of common and unique risk factors and treatment concerns for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Current empirical research has yielded the following findings regarding suicidal behavior in LGBT individuals: (1) LGBT individuals are at increased risk for suicide, non-lethal suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation. (2) LGBT youth are at increased risk for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation.


Attending to issues of ethnic and racial diversity in suicide prevention refers to the consideration of common and unique risk factors and treatment concerns for individuals of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Current empirical research has yielded the following findings regarding suicidal behavior and ethnic/racial diversity: (1) In the United States, suicide rates differ by race and ethnicity, (2) Suicide rates in young, African American males exhibited a sharp increase between 1981 and 1994, (3) Native Americans die by suicide at markedly elevated rates, (4) Hispanic youth attempt suicide more frequently than other groups.


Attending to issues of religious diversity in suicide prevention refers to the consideration of religious and spiritual factors when assessing and managing suicide risk, as well as providing psychotherapy to suicidal clients with diverse religious/spiritual backgrounds. Current empirical research has yielded the following findings regarding suicidal behavior in religiously diverse individuals: (1) Religiosity−self-perceived importance of religion−functions as a protective factor against suicidal behaviors in many studies and across many cultures, but not all, (2) Regular participation in religious activities is a protective factor for lethal and non-lethal suicide attempts. (3) Not all aspects of religion/spirituality are protective against suicide.



A recent survey of transgender and gender non-conforming adults (TGNA) yielded important information about suicide behavior in these groups. The specific aims of the analysis were to identify the key characteristics and experiences associated with lifetime suicide attempts in the NTDS sample as a whole, and to examine how lifetime suicide attempts vary among different groups of transgender and gender nonconforming people. The survey also looked at associated variables in the groups including race, disability, etc.  The report is titled, “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” (Haas, Rodgers and Herman, 2014) and can found in the public domain here.  If you have trouble with the link, it can also be found here. Review the article as part of this course.  The following are highlights of the findings as presented in the report.


The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41%, which vastly exceeds the 4.6% of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide. Much remains to be learned about underlying factors and which groups within the diverse population of transgender and gender non-conforming people are most at risk.



Key Findings of the Report (Survey of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults)



Suicide attempts among trans men (46%) and trans women (42%) were slightly higher than the full sample (41%). Cross-dressers assigned male at birth have the lowest reported prevalence of suicide attempts among gender identity groups (21%).


Analysis of other demographic variables found prevalence of suicide attempts was highest among those who are younger (18 to 24: 45%), multiracial (54%) and American Indian or Alaska Native (56%), have lower levels of educational attainment (high school or less: 48-49%), and have lower annual household income (less than $10,000: 54%).


Prevalence of suicide attempts is elevated among those who disclose to everyone that they are transgender or gender-non-conforming (50%) and among those that report others can tell always (42%) or most of the time (45%) that they are transgender or gender non-conforming even if they don’t tell them.


Respondents who are HIV-positive (51%) and respondents with disabilities (55-65%) also have elevated prevalence of suicide attempts. In particular, 65 percent of those with a mental health condition that substantially affects a major life activity reported attempting suicide.


Respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence had elevated prevalence of suicide attempts, such as those who experienced the following: — Family chose not to speak/spend time with them: 57% — Discrimination, victimization, or violence at school, at work, and when accessing health care - Harassed or bullied at school (50-54%), Experienced discrimination or harassment at work (50-59%), Doctor or health care provider refused to treat them (60%), Suffered physical or sexual violence (63-78%).   


Experienced homelessness: 69%



Overall, the most striking finding of our analysis was the exceptionally high prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts reported by NTDS respondents across all demographics and experiences. Based on prior research and the findings of this report, we find that mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination, violence and rejection may interact to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. More research on suicidal behavior among transgender and gender non-conforming people is needed.



Additional Findings



Reported lifetime suicide attempts decreased with age, from a high of 45% for 18-44-year-olds to 33% for 55-64-year-olds and 16 % for those over 65 years-old.


Respondents who indicated “white” race/ethnicity had the lowest prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts at 38%, while American Indians and Alaska Natives reported the highest at 56%.


Generally, those with greater educational achievement were less likely to report having attempted suicide, with 31% of respondents with a graduate degree, compared to 49% of those with a high school diploma, reporting a lifetime suicide attempt.


Like education, those with higher household income had a lower prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts, with 26% of those with income exceeding $100,000 saying they had ever attempted suicide, compared to 54% percent of those with income less than $10,000.


Lifetime suicide attempts were less frequently reported by respondents who were in the workforce (37%) than those who were out of the workforce and not looking for work (46%) and those who were unemployed (50%). Among all categories of current participation in the workforce, respondents who were retired reported the lowest prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts (29%), which is consistent with findings related to age. The highest prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts (65%) was found among those on disability.


In regard to relationship status, those who were married or widowed reported lower prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts at 33% and 31%, respectively, while those who were single reported the highest prevalence at 45%. The prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts varied across sexual orientation categories with 35% of those who described themselves as heterosexual saying they had ever attempted suicide, compared to 40% of those who were gay/lesbian, 40% of those who were bisexual, and 46% of those who said they were asexual or another orientation.



The elderly


Although all of the risk factors and management guides apply to the geriatric population, this does represent a special group.  The data demonstrate that there is a bimodal distribution to the suicide curve.  The elderly and adolescents are at the highest risk.  About 20% of all successful suicides are completed by men over 65 years old with the greatest risk among those over 69 years old. An interesting but as yet unexplained trend beginning in the 1990’s when managed care became prevalent is the increase in the number of successful suicides in men over 80 years old. 



Successful Suicides in the Elderly – Why?



Among the reasons that elderly patients (especially men) are more successful when they attempt suicide include the following:


   they are less likely to make a “cry for help”

   they have access to potentially harmful (lethal) medications

   they use more lethal means (hanging or gunshot)

   less physically resilient



About 75% of the elderly who successfully commit suicide had been recently diagnosed with a first episode of major depression which was rated to be only “moderately severe” and a similar number (about 75%) had seen their family doctor within one month of the completed suicide. 



Special Risk Factors for Suicidality in the Elderly



Presence of mental and/or emotional disorders

Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption

Diminished quality of life

Separation (from family and friends)


Recent death of a spouse

Comorbid medical disease rates

Long-term persistent depression and/or anxiety

Being male and Caucasian



Among the elderly, detecting suicidality and preventing suicide is more challenging since they may tend to be more reserved about the symptoms (e.g. sharing emotional distress), making a cry for help (e.g.  instrumental suicide-related behavior) and being more serious in their attempts (gunshot, hanging, lethal overdose with no chance of discovery). When suicidality in an elderly individual is suspected, the special risk factors should be assessed carefully.  Talking with the patient’s family is also important since 60% of individuals who commit suicide have discussed suicidal ideations with family members within the past year. In stark contrast, only 18% discuss their intentions with a healthcare professional. 


One of the most important factors is the accurate identification of depression in the elderly. Many healthcare professionals will miss the telltale signs of depression in the elderly (or disregard them), believing they are “normal” signs of aging.  Depression presents differently in the elderly than in other populations.  The elderly individual with depression often presents with fewer mood-related symptoms and instead complains of fatigue, concentration difficulties, diminished memory, and lack of initiative.  In at least one study, depressed patients were more likely to deny sadness and/or lack of pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed. This is referred to as “masked depression” or “non-dysphoric depression” (See Table). 



Masked Depression in the Elderly



Weight loss

Focus on multiple physical and somatic complaints

Unexplained somatic complaints

Minimizing/denying mood related symptoms

Weakness, Lassitude

Hopelessness, Helplessness

Anxiety, worry, rumination

Memory complaints (with or without objective findings)

Loss of pleasure in activities (anhedonia)

Slowed movement


Lack of interest in personal care



Assessment of the elderly person with depression (and suicidality) should determine whether it is more lifelong (most major depression begins with a first episode in the person’s 30’s) or whether it is late onset.  If the first episode of major depression occurs after age 65 then it is referred to as late-onset or geriatric-onset depression.  This category of depression is well-known in the literature, but is not specifically identified in the DSM.  Late-onset depression has different characteristics than a lifelong pattern and these can be found in the Table.



Late-Onset Depression: Characteristics



Major depressive episode after age 65 years’ old

Increased incidence of psychotic and delusional symptoms (45%)

Less likely to have positive family history of depression

More likely to present with masked depression

Higher frequency of neuroimaging findings



Suicide in the Person without Depression


The euthanasia program in Oregon provides data relative to a unique population, mostly elderly: those patients who want to die and are not depressed. Part of the physician-assisted suicide program screening is that the patient be free of depression.  Given the unique characteristics of this euthanasia population, the following are reasons given for desiring suicide (See the Table):



Suicide in Person without Depression



Control the circumstances of death

To maintain dignity

A desire to die at home

Being ready to die

The belief that continuing to live is pointless

An inability to engage in pleasurable activities

Poor quality of life 



Some of this information may be useful in assessing the depressed elderly person.  In the research, psychiatric nurses listed the following issues as important reasons for patients deciding on euthanasia:  lack of control, loss of independence, pain relief, concern about becoming a burden to one’s family.  Thus, in patients without identified depression, overriding issues of loss of physical function and declining health seemed to be related to suicidality.  Importantly, the patient’s perception of being a burden (and the other issues) were rated as more severe than those of the significant others’ ratings of the same issues. This data is important since it can alert the clinician to other suicidality issues even in patients who do not present with the classic depression symptoms.




Diversity and Suicidal Behavior


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