In an increasingly competitive world where adolescents are constantly under pressure to achieve and excel – at school, on the sports field, at home, among friends – it comes as no surprise that suicide is one of the leading causes of teen deaths, worldwide as well as in South Africa.
Statistics & trends
“Suicidal thoughts are common amongst the youth, with about 1 in 6 females and 1 in 10 males between the ages of 12 and 16 experiencing suicidal thoughts in the past 6 months. The rates of completed self-deaths are higher in males than females, says Dr Kerryn Armstrong, specialist psychiatrist at Akeso Clinic in Milnerton.
Th South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) also points out South Africa’s high suicide rate and concerns about the trend: “In South Africa, 9,5% of all teen deaths are due to kids killing themselves – and this figure is on the increase. In the 25-24 age group, suicide is the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death. Children as young as 6 years old have committed suicide in South Africa. Every day 23 people, (adults and adolescents) take their lives. Suicide is on the increase. The question is why?”
Key indicators for suicide
According to Dr Armstrong, a range of indicators and tell-tale signs should act as “alarm bells” for adolescent self-death risk. These include:
- Communication of suicidal thoughts, presence of a suicide plan, preparation for suicide/saying goodbye
- Low mood, feelings of hopelessness
- Deterioration in school work, loss of interest in activities
- Increased irritability, aggression, moodiness
- Substance abuse
Suicide results from a complex interaction between individual, psychosocial and mental health factors, Dr Armstrong adds.
Major risk factors include:
- Previous suicide attempts
- Mental health problems
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Dysfunctional/unstable personality characteristics
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Impulsive anger outbursts
- Family history of depression or suicide
- Loss of a parent or close relationship
A holistic approach tailored to each individual’s unique personal and contextual needs should be followed, Dr Armstrong advises. “The patient, family and community should all be actively involved in planning and implementation of interventions. Once the individual’s safety has been ensured, steps should be taken to:
- identify and treat underlying psychiatric disorders,
- decrease stress and demands on the individual,
- address contributing psychosocial stressors through family and school interventions, and
- optimize support for the individual going forward.”
Open communication with a caring adult who can listen without judgement to the concerns of the teen is the best form of prevention. It is vital for a teenager to have open communication yet, despite this, sometimes teens are unable to let someone know how much distress they feel.
By limiting their teenager’s access to guns, knives, alcohol, prescription pills and illegal drugs, parents can play a pivotal preventive role. Moreover, they should be very aware of who their child’s friends are and net work with the other parents on a regular basis so they can keep track of their child’s whereabout and communications. Teenagers tend to complain about their right to privacy, but it is the parent’s job to keep them safe.
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Adolescent suicide is a very real risk in South Africa
“It is imperative that suicide prevention measures are taken seriously in order to decrease the occurrence of this devastating outcome,” Dr Armstrong stresses.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
1. In South Africa, hanging is the most frequently employed method of self-death, followed by shooting, gassing and burning.
2. 60% of people who commit suicide are depressed.
3. Internationally, the suicide rate for children ages 10-14 years has more than doubled over the last 15 years.
4. In South Africa, the average suicide is 17,2 per 100 000 (8% of all deaths). This related only to deaths reported by academic hospitals. The real figure is higher.
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