While Teen Suicide Prevention week, from February 21 to 28 ends, the reality of suicide risk in teens does not.
Suicide is becoming more common every year in South Africa, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).
Only car accidents and murder kill more youths between the ages of 15 and 24. The fastest-growing age for suicidal tendency is young people under 35, specifically young women between 15 and 19.
It is not unusual for more than one child to make a pact to die. In one Northern Cape town, three children from the same group have died.
Research by Sadag reveals that although more girls attempt suicide, more boys succeed (because of the more violent method they select).
While girls are more likely to overdose on medication or take chemicals, boys often find access to firearms or hang themselves.
Zane Wilson, founder of Sadag, says: “It is not hard to see why serious depression and suicide are connected. Depression involves a long lasting sad mood that doesn’t let up and a loss of pleasure in things you once enjoyed. It Involves thoughts about death, negative thoughts about oneself, a sense of worthlessness. We get calls ranging from a teen girl of 15 who has been constantly abused by her stepfather, a boy who has lost his elder brother due to gang violence and a child of 12 whose mother has recently died of Aids.
“Sometimes they feel there is nothing to look forward to or that life would be less painful if they were to end it.”
But depression is treatable. There is help to be had, and with treatment, more than 70% of people can make a recovery.
Sadag runs the National Toll Free Suicide Crisis Line (0800 567 567) which takes many calls from teens who are calling for themselves or on behalf of a friend.
Counsellors answer the calls and encourage teens to get professional help, to talk to an adult they trust, to go to a doctor, or talk to a church leader.
For schools that are in crisis either due to the death of a pupil, teacher or parent, there is the When Death Impacts your School programme.
Teacher’s half day workshops are also given throughout South Africa.
Professor Lourens Schlebusch, of the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, is one of the foremost world experts on suicide. He estimates there are at least 20 to 25 suicides each day.
“Depression, especially major depression, is a very serious and life-threatening condition, which needs to be treated with great care and circumspection and a well-monitored regimen of medication and therapy,” he says.
At this stage in South Africa people with HIV/Aids are up to 36 times more likely to be suicidal.
Mark de la Ray is a psychologist practising at Akeso Kenilworth Adolescents/Young Adults (KAYA) and Akeso Kenilworth mental health facilities, which are connected to Akeso Stepping Stones in Fish Hoek.
He says parents, teachers, peers and friends may observe changes in a teenager’s demeanour without realising what these signs could potentially mean.
Recognising the signs, taking them seriously and responding appropriately can make the difference between life and death for young people contemplating suicide.
“It is important to bear in mind that depression can influence behaviour in different ways, and while some teenagers with depression may exhibit sadness, in others it may manifest as excessive tiredness or loss of energy, a loss of enthusiasm or interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, irritability, anger or the expression of hopelessness.”
He emphasises that teenagers who have attempted to take their own lives previously are at higher risk for suicide and should be carefully monitored for any signs of such intent recurring.
“It would be dangerous to assume that any attempt at suicide, whether ‘serious’ injury is sustained or not, is simply attention seeking behaviour that does not require intervention. Any form of suicidal acting out would indicate that there is deep underlying distress and an inability to cope with current life circumstances, whether this is attributable to depression or another type of mental health problem.”
Mr De la Ray says in some cases, suicidal thoughts may be associated with adjustment to certain medications.
Teenagers who have recently started taking new medication, including antidepressants, or have had a change in their prescribed dosage, may experience difficulties initially. In such instances, the treating doctor or psychiatrist should be consulted without delay.