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Suicide among Asian Americans

August 18, 2008

Asian Americans whose families experience a high degree of interpersonal conflict have a three-fold greater risk of attempting suicide when compared with Asian Americans overall, according to a new study by University of California, Davis, researchers. The risk is tripled even among those who have never had a diagnosis of depression. The findings were reported Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston.

"Because of the great emphasis on harmony and family integration in many Asian cultures, family conflict is an important factor to consider when studying suicidal behaviors among Asian Americans," said Stanley Sue, a professor of psychology and Asian American studies at UC Davis and one of the study's authors. "Our study suggests that we need to more precisely determine the kinds of family conflicts that are associated with suicide risk among Asian Americans, and find means of preventing these family problems."

Sue's study is a new analysis of data from the 2002-2003 National Latino and Asian American Study, the largest nationally representative survey ever conducted of Asian Americans. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the landmark survey involved in-person interviews with more than 2,000 Asian Americans nationwide. Subjects were asked about income, marital status, age at time of immigration or number of generations their families have been in the United States, English language proficiency, family conflict, and suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, among other questions, yielding a wealth of raw data for researchers to examine for insights into Asian American mental health.

In the national survey, 2.7 percent of the Asian Americans interviewed reported having attempted suicide at some point during their lives; 9.1 percent of the total group reported having had suicidal thoughts.

Further mining the survey data, Sue and lead investigator Janice Cheng, a psychology graduate student, sorted out the suicide-prone individuals' answers to additional survey questions that asked about past diagnosis of depression and family income. The researchers compared the answers with those of interviewees who had not reported suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.

The researchers found that among Asian Americans in the national survey, family conflict was a significant risk factor for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts -- independent of depression, low income or gender.

"This is the first nationally representative investigation of family conflict and suicidal behaviors among Asian Americans," Sue said. "Our findings suggest that high family conflict has an independent and additive effect in predicting lifetime suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among Asian Americans."

Previous studies by other researchers have shown that certain subgroups of Asian Americans, including college students and Asian American women older than 65, have relatively high rates of suicide or suicide attempts compared with the rest of the nation. However, the UC Davis study was not designed to compare rates of suicide among different groups.

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