Asian American Teens at Highest Risk for Suicidal Thoughts

NEW ORLEANS — In an unexpected finding, researchers discovered that Asian American adolescents had the highest rate of suicidal ideation, per a 2019 national survey of high-school students. According to a weighted analysis, 24% of Asian Americans reported thinking about or planning suicide vs. 22% of Whites and Blacks and 20% of Hispanics (P < .01).



Dr Esha Hansoti

“We were shocked,” said study lead author Esha Hansoti, MD, who conducted the research at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and is now a psychiatry resident at Zucker Hillside Hospital Northwell/Hofstra in Glen Oaks, NY. The findings were released at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.

Hansoti and colleagues launched the analysis in light of sparse research into Asian American mental health, she said. Even within this population, she said, mental illness “tends to be overlooked” and discussion of the topic may be considered taboo.

For the new study, researchers analyzed the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted biennially by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had more than 13,000 participants in grades 9-12.

A weighted bivariate analysis of 618 Asian American adolescents — adjusted for age, sex, and depressive symptoms — found no statistically significant impact on suicidal ideation by gender, age, substance use, sexual/physical dating violence, or fluency in English.

However, several groups had a statistically significant higher risk, including victims of forced sexual intercourse and those who were or bullied at school.

Those who didn’t get mostly A grades were also at high risk: Adolescents with mostly Ds and Fs were more likely to have acknowledged suicidal ideation than those with mostly As (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 3.2).

Gays and lesbians (AOR = 7.9 vs. heterosexuals), and bisexuals (AOR = 5.2 vs. heterosexuals) also showed sharply higher rates of suicidal ideation.

It’s not clear why Asian American adolescents may be at higher risk of suicidal ideation. The survey was completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which spawned bigotry against people of Asian descent and an ongoing outbreak of high-profile violence against Asian Americans across the country.

Hansoti noted that Asian Americans face the pressures to live up to the standards of being a “model minority.” In addition, “very few Asian American adolescents are taken to a therapist, and few mental health providers are Asian Americans.”

She urged fellow psychiatrists “to remember that our perceptions of Asian Americans might hinder some of the diagnoses we could be making. Be thoughtful about how their ethnicity and race affects their presentation and their own perception of their illness.”

She added that Asian Americans may experience mental illness and anxiety “more somatically and physically than emotionally.”



Dr Anne Saw

In an interview, Anne Saw, PhD, associate professor of clinical-community psychology at DePaul University, Chicago, said the findings are “helpful for corroborating other studies identifying risk factors of suicidal ideation among Asian American adolescents. Behavior Survey, these findings can be compared with risk factors of suicidal ideation among adolescents from other racial/ethnic backgrounds to pinpoint general as well as specific risk factors, thus informing how we can tailor interventions for specific groups.”

According to Saw, while it’s clear that suicide is a leading cause of death among Asian American adolescents, it’s still unknown which specific subgroups other than girls and LGBTIA+ individuals are particularly vulnerable and which culturally tailored intervention is most effective for decreasing suicide risk.

“Psychiatrists should understand that risk and protective factors for suicidal behavior in Asian American adolescents are multifaceted and require careful attention and intervention across different environments,” she said.

No funding and no disclosures were reported.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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