Almost 1 in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year is the result of suicide. Up 20 per cent of high school learners have tried to take their own lives.
With teenagers and young adults, the focus of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Dr Sebolelo Seape, chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group (PsychMG) said the prevention of teen suicides starts with a better understanding of the symptoms of depression.
“Most people with depression are not suicidal, but most suicidal people are depressed,” she said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is globally the third highest disease burden amongadolescents, and suicide the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds, while the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) stated that 9 per cent of teenage deaths in the country are due to suicide.
“This suggests a large proportion of teenagers are suffering from mental and emotional health problems. The youth are the future of our country and we need to act to prevent the devastating consequences of them losing their hope for the future,” Dr Seape said.
Dr Seape said the causes of depression and related mental illnesses in teenagers and young adults are multi-faceted as there is the stressful nature of the teenage years – for some teenagers, the normal developmental changes of these years, such as bodily changes, new patterns of thoughts and feelings, can be unsettling and overwhelming.
“There are social changes too, like changing schools, the pressure of final exams, the prospect of leaving home to start tertiary studies or a job; as well as other stress factors such as family issues, changes in their friend networks, and the pressure to succeed – problems appear too big, too difficult or embarrassing to overcome, and suicide may look like the only option,” Dr Seape added.
She said warning signs and symptoms could include changes in eating and sleeping habits, loss of interest in usual activities, neglect of personal appearance or hygiene, withdrawal from friends and family, or running away from home.
Alcohol and substance abuse, unnecessary risk-taking behaviour, obsession with death and dying, and numerous physical complaints linked to emotional distress, are also signals, she said, along with feelings of boredom, agitation, nervousness, sadness, loneliness or hopelessness.
“Some teenagers may actually pass verbal hints by talking about death and dying directly or indirectly, they may talk about wanting to die and begin to dispose of much-loved possessions, and they may write a suicide note. All threats of suicide must be taken seriously,” she warned.
Parents, teachers and friends concerned about a teenager at risk of suicide should be willing to listen without judgment, provide reassurance that they care, and to ask questions about suicidal thoughts.
“Don’t try to argue them out of suicide and avoid guilt-inducing statements like ‘suicide will hurt your family’. Rather let them know that you care and want to understand, that they are not alone, and that problems and suicidal feelings are temporary – that depression can be treated and problems can be solved,” she said.
Dr Seape also pointed to the role of parents and educators in building children’s mental and emotional resilience – the ability to cope with everyday challenges and to overcome disappointments and failures as a normal part of life.