New Study Reveals Coping Factors Affect Suicidal Ideation

According to Brea L. Perry of the University of Kentucky, African American women who have moderate levels of adaptive coping mechanisms, such as self-esteem, well-being, and active coping skills are less likely to contemplate or act on suicidal ideas than those with very low or very high levels of the same traits. Perry was motivated to explore this topic because African-American women make up the highest percentage of the general population that experiences significant enough consequences from suicide attempts to receive medical care. And yet, to date, little clinical research has been focused on the factors that put them at risk.

Perry evaluated 204 low-income African-American women for their experience of general racism, sexism, sexist racism, and discrimination, as well as their coping factors. She theorized that women with chronic stress from racism and sexism would be most at risk, and that social support, high levels of self-esteem, and well-being would weaken that risk. Her theory was partially correct. Perry discovered that nearly one fifth of the women in her study had a history of suicidal ideation. Of those, the largest predictor was gendered racism, not racism or sexism independently. This suggests that the combined effect of being stereotyped and discriminated against for race and sex together has the most significant adverse impact on psychological well-being.

When she examined the coping and resiliency factors among the women, Perry found that social and family support, elements believed to protect people from psychological distress, did this for the majority of the participants. However, other coping mechanisms, such as self-esteem and adaptive coping behaviors, only helped the women if had moderate levels of those traits. The women with high or low self-esteem and high or low adaptive coping were not insulated from risk. It is understandable why low coping could make someone vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, but having high coping skills and suicidal vulnerability is less understood.

Perry believes that the women in her sample, who were primarily low-income women, may internalize feelings of frustration or incompetence if they have unusually high levels of self-esteem. In other words, in their environment, these women are less able to meet their own expectations of themselves, and therefore may internalize those feelings of disappointment, thus eliminating the buffering effect of high self-esteem and positive coping. Although more work needs to be done, Perry noted that these results provide new insight. She said, “These findings improve our understanding of the combinations of culturally specific experiences and psychosocial processes that constitute risk and protective factors for suicide among African American women.”

Perry, Brea L., Erin L. Pullen, and Carrie B. Oser. Too much of a good thing? Psychosocial resources, gendered racism, and suicidal ideation among low socioeconomic status African American women. Social Psychology Quarterly75.4 (2012): 334-59. Print.

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  • Uma


    January 17th, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    Wow. Okay, I didn’t even know African American women were attached to this statistic:

    “African-American women make up the highest percentage of the general population that experiences significant enough consequences from suicide attempts to receive medical care.”

    Thank goodness some light is being shone on this situation.

  • viktor w

    viktor w

    January 17th, 2013 at 11:10 AM

    How sad that in this day in age people still have to confront gender and racial discrimination. How much longer will it take until we are all on level playing fields. African Americans have dealt with this for so many generations. It is time for this insanity to stop. The consequences are obviously extreme. People really need to think before they interact with someone who is different on the outside yet a real, feeling human being on the inside.

  • w harris

    w harris

    January 17th, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    You would think high self-esteem would help, not hinder, an African American woman’s ability to navigate through this messed up world.

  • Yancy


    January 17th, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    Let’s put this work to good use! I would love to see someone pick up this study where it left off. Can you imagine how valuable this information is the African American women’s community? So much great work could be done to remedy this situation. Come on, people! Let this be your rally cry!!

  • selma nance

    selma nance

    January 18th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    I am kind of surprised here too, because there seems to be much more taboo associated to suicide within the black community. Not that you want to see this prevalent within any culture or subgorup of society, but from the outside I always think of this being a fairly tight knit community with abhuge system of support for one another, so you wouldn’t think that suicide would be the thing that someone would turn to if this was in their lives.

  • Chadwick


    January 18th, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    So important to get to the reasons of why people commit suicide.And if the reasons are gender racism it is shameful to us as a society.Sad that after all these years and decades of campaigns there are still so many people who are subjected to such negative prejudices.

    It would be better if the at-risk group has some hands-on training with the coping methods to counter the effects of the negative prejudices.It may well be their only resource against suicide ideation.

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