Overall suicide rates fell last year, but the data isn't as encouraging as it might seem

Yet another harsh reminder that the pandemic didn't affect everyone equally.

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This article contains discussions about suicide. If you or a loved one are struggling, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Inequality is nothing new in this country, but the pandemic made it impossible to ignore. We saw disproportionately high rates of COVID in communities of color, which also bore the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout. These statistics serve as a grim reminder of parallel disparities in mental health outcomes; although the overall number of suicides fell from 2019 to 2020 in the U.S., they rose for some people of color, as well as for young adults, according to a report published Wednesday by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

At first glance, the data appears encouraging. The number of suicides dropped 3% from 2019 to 2020, CNN reports, following a 2% decline from 2018 to 2019. White people led that trend, as Sally Curtin — a lead author of the report, and a member of the NCHS Division of Vital Statistics — told the outlet.

Examining other demographic groups reveals a more complicated story. Suicide rates rose for Black, Indigenous and Latinx men, per CNN. Although suicide rates fell for women across all racial groups, only the 10% drop seen in white women was statistically significant.

Young adults were hit hard, too. The report found a statistically significant 5% increase in suicide rates among 25- to 34-year-olds, consistent with earlier research showing that young people have been more susceptible than those in other age groups to stress, depression and other mental health impacts of the pandemic.

The NCHS quantified what many of us had already seen in our own lives. “The COVID-19 pandemic increased many of the risk factors associated with suicidal behavior (adverse mental health conditions, substance misuse, and job or financial stress), with young adults and Black and Hispanic persons affected more than other demographic groups,” the study authors wrote.

CNN noted that the NCHS data is “provisional” — not final. Since confirming the cause of death requires investigation, accurately documenting suicides can take months. Data on suicides among women in particular is “more likely to be incomplete,” the report explained, since they tend to involve poisonings, which take longer to evaluate. That said, the study authors don’t expect these results to differ all that much from the final data.

It’s also important to note that while suicide rates seem to be declining, they’re still high overall and that “some groups continue to go up,” Curtin told CNN. What’s more, the increases in these groups “were just continuations of upward trajectories.” Not unlike COVID, mental health struggles don’t affect everyone equally.