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On this website, we write a lot about the disproportionate health burdens affecting people of color. Whites continue to have a longer life expectancy than blacks in America, who die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and murder at higher rates. Racism is itself a health risk. Lower incomes, less education and living in a poor neighborhood are also linked to premature death in this country; again, these factors weigh disproportionately on people of color.

By many measures, white people in America are healthier. But not every measure. Hispanics in the U.S. actually live longer than either whites or blacks—despite having lower average levels of education and income, two commonly cited social determinants of health. Public health experts theorize that immigration patterns, strong social support and less smoking in Hispanic communities could help explain their longevity.

And there’s one public health risk that weighs disproportionately on white men: suicide.

Two Princeton economists last week reported a disturbing finding: Death rates among middle-aged white men have been rising. This is at odds with longstanding trends for longer lives among every other racial group, and in other rich countries. At the root of the increase are a rise in suicides in this group, as well as deaths related to substance abuse and addiction.

Here in Colorado, white men older than 65 face the greatest risk of suicide of any group; in 2014, they took their own lives at nearly three times the state average, according to data provided to The Trust by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of the 177 elderly Coloradans who lost their lives to suicide last year, 94 percent were non-Hispanic white and most were men. None were African American.

The disparities are also stark among middle-aged Coloradans. White men between the ages of 25 and 44 have a suicide rate that’s nearly twice as high as black, Latino or Asian men. White men between the ages of 45 and 64 took their own lives at nearly three times the rate of Latino men, and almost five times the rate of black men.

So what’s going on with white men?

Jarrod Hindman manages the suicide prevention unit at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. His office has been actively working to stem a growing suicide rate in Colorado, notably through an effort called Man Therapy. Man Therapy is a rare public health effort that can take a joke. Dr. Rich Mahogany (get it?) leads men through quizzes related to their mental health, and guides them to resources for wellness and treatment.

Hindman says men face hurdles on a number of fronts that make it harder for them to seek help when they need it.

“Most men are still pretty resistant to accessing traditional mental health services,” says Hindman. “Some of it is how we socialize boys to become men, [leading to their] delaying accessing services until it’s at the crisis point.”

Men also face heavier general health burdens than women do, suffering at higher rates from heart disease, diabetes, even homicide. That can contribute to their stress.

And then there’s the question of method: Suicides in Colorado are largely gun deaths, and men are more likely to choose this brutally effective means than women.

But, says Hindman, none of that explains why the white male suicide rate is higher than other groups.

“That’s one I absolutely can’t figure out,” he says.

Hindman speculates that it might have something to do with a sense of loss among white men whose status and privilege were once unchallenged, and who now compete with women in an increasingly diverse workforce.

Perhaps a better question is what’s protecting men in other ethnic groups, who face the same economic and health hurdles as white men—and more.

Sharon Bailey, PhD, is an activist with the Colorado Black Round Table, which convened in response to deteriorating economic and educational conditions among blacks and Latinos in Colorado. She says African Americans sometimes face even higher hurdles than whites in getting help for mental illness. Stigma is strong, and access is spotty.

“There’s a piece of it where, we don’t seek mental health support,” says Bailey, “and oftentimes it’s not out there for us.”

But Bailey says there are also strong sources of strength within the African American community that have developed as protective factors across a history plagued with adversity.

“I think our churches, I think families have really been a source of support,” she says, “for folks in our community who have had to experience hopelessness over many, many decades, starting from slavery.”

Women in particular have fostered this kind of resilience in some black communities, she says.

“There’s this myth of a strong black woman,” says Bailey. “Where that comes from is we’re able to reach out and help each other through crises.”

But these sources of strength are fragile, and there are signs that they may be eroding. In May, for the first time, national researchers found a group of blacks whose suicide rate had risen above those of whites: children. Across the U.S., suicide among black children, ages 5 to 11, rose steeply in the two decades ending in 2012.

“It depends on the situation, the family and the community, but I think we’re losing the historical community glue that we had,” says Bailey. “That extended family of support seems to have fallen off over time, particularly in the last few decades.”

Amid these threats to traditional supports, efforts to decrease stigma and increase access to mental health care will take on growing importance for black communities, says Bailey.

Just as important are building an educational system and economic opportunities that deliver rewards for hard work. That goes for people across all racial and ethnic lines who have suffered through a rocky economy in recent years to the detriment of their mental health. “Black, white or brown,” says Bailey, “We’re beginning to see the repercussions of that.”

Building these systems is long-term work. In the short term, Coloradans can get help for themselves or their family and friends by calling Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).

Kristin Jones

Freelance writer and editor
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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