Study: Race Bias Doubles Suicide Consideration by Chinese Elders in U.S.

Study: Race Bias Doubles Suicide Consideration by Chinese Elders in U.S.

Story tools

A A AResize



  Lydia W. Li, PhD, of the University of Michigan shown speaking at the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics. (Zhihong Li/Sing Tao Daily)

SAN FRANCISCO—Older Chinese immigrants in the Chicago area who reported experiencing racial discrimination also had considered committing suicide at twice the level of those who said who were not subjected to bias. That’s according to a new study presented at the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in San Francisco in July.

According to the study, published in American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, “Clinicians need to recognize the impact of discrimination on ethnic minority elders. For those who report experiencing

Older Asian Population
In U.S. Growing Fast

The percentage of Asians in the United States will increase five more than times in the 65-plus population from 1.4 percent in 2010 to 7.5 percentage by 2050.

In general, said Steven P. Wallace, who directs UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, with more immigrants coming to the United States, the older set is becoming more diverse.

Wallace, who also directs UCLA’s national office for the Resource Centers on Minority Health Research around the country, showed that the U.S. senior population will double by 2040 to 40.2 million and grow to 88.5 million by 2050. By then, he said, the proportion of those 65-plus from ethnic backgrounds will also double to over four in 10.

He added that because groups of ethnic elders tend to be challenged economically, policymakers advocates for older people need to pay greater attention to such issues as affordable healthcare, access to social services, immigration enforcement and racial policies.

A 2015 report he cited showed that only 6.6 percent of older whites fall at or below the federal poverty level (FPL), compared with 11.8 percent of Asians, 15.4 percent of American Indians, 17.5 percent of Latinos, and 18.2 percent of African Americans.

In particular, Wallace noted, older Americans are increasingly struggling with the rising out-of-pocket costs of housing and health care. Currently, he said, seniors between ages 65 and 74 spend 33.3 percent of their income on housing—often more in urban areas--and 11.6 percent for uninsured health care expenses. Seniors 75 and older have to use 37.4 percent on housing and 15.3 percent health care.

Living situations closely relate to how long Asian elders have been in the U.S. For instance, although 7.6 percent of Asian seniors born in the U.S. live with their grandchildren, 17.7 percent of Asian who have been in the U.S. for more than five years live do so—and more than half (53.8 percent) of Asian elders in this country for five years or less years live with their grandkids.

--Zhihong Li
Sing Tao Daily

discrimination, assessment of suicide risk may be necessary. Efforts to promote civil rights and reduce discrimination may also be a form of primary prevention of suicide.”

Only Immigrants Included

“According to research, older adults accounted for 17.9 percent of all suicide death, but 14.9 percent of the 2015 American population,” said the study’s lead author, Lydia W. Li, PhD, associate professor of social work from University of Michigan at the World Congress.

Li said that the factors causing suicidal ideation vary among different races. The report, titled “Association of Self-Reported Discrimination and Suicide Ideation in Older Chinese Americans,” included data from 3,157 Chinese seniors ages 60 and older in the Greater Chicago Area. All had immigrated to the United States an average of 20 years before the survey.

The survey intended to correlate the extent to which Chinese seniors has considered ending their lives in the previous 30 days with other factors that might help point to possible causes and potential remedies.

The average age of seniors who filled out the survey was 72. Almost three in five (57 percent) study participants were women, and nearly three-quarters (72 percent) were married. Also, those in the survey had an average of 8.7 years of formal schooling.

In addition, 85 percent of the survey’s participating seniors had income of less than $10,000 a year. After Li controlled for other variables, such as age, gender, income and education, she found that the suicidal ideation for those reporting discrimination was 1.9 times who said they had not been subjected to prejudice.

Overall, 4.1 percent of the study group reported thinking about suicide in the 30 days prior to filling out the survey, and more than one in five (21.5 percent) reported discrimination. Self-reported discrimination was significantly associated with suicide ideation before and after adjusting for other factors, including sociodemographic characteristics; neuroticism; social relationships; and physical, cognitive and mental health.

Furthermore, Li said, “The older adults who have higher [educational] degrees or higher incomes are more likely to speak out about their discrimination experience.” Nevertheless, these seniors also had thought of killing themselves.

Also, where older adults did not alter their level of discrimination and suicidal ideation, because 30 percent resided in Chicago’s Chinatown, while the majority lived in different communities.

The report also shows that Chinese seniors face more discrimination at work and in public spaces.

Discrimination Aggravates Mental Distress

All of the seniors involved in the report came to the U.S. after they became adults, and more than half of them immigrated with the sponsorship of their children. Li said that many seniors were uncertain whether demeaning or unpleasant incidences they’d experience constituted discrimination. “The process of distinguishing discrimination is also frustrating,” she noted.

Many Chinese seniors are not willing to speak out or ask for help because of their cultural traditions and modest thoughts. She suggested that health and social-service agencies increase professional consultants in immigrant communities to help seniors reduce the impact of discrimination on them and to educate them to distinguish discrimination from other behavior.

Li added that family members should pay more attention to seniors’ mental health and help them overcome obstacles in their new cultural environment.

Zhihong Li wrote this article for Sing Tao Daily (New York) in Chinese with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Retirement Research Foundation. She provided the English translation with assistance by New America Media staff.