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South Africa marks Teen Suicide Awareness Week from 22 to 28 February 2004

9% of all Teen deaths are due to Suicide
Children as young as 10 in SA take their own lives!

Llewellyn Kriel takes a look at the tragic reality of the cream of South Africa’s youth who, in despair and fear, take their own lives. Yet most suicides can be prevented, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, providing correct and timeous intervention takes place. This is what Teen Suicide Prevention Week is all about.

Teen Suicide Week runs this year from 22 to 28 February. It is appropriate that we pause to think about this tragic phenomenon. Teen suicide is a pervasive and global tragedy, killing children as young as 10 in South Africa without respect for income or intellectual level.

Teen suicide is not easy dinner talk. It should be.
It is not a focus of massive government programmes. It should be.
It is spoken about in the hushed tones reserved for the terrible things that happen to other people. It should not be.
That could be one of the reasons why the shock and disbelief when a teenager kills himself or herself is so excruciating and severe. We never imagined it could happen to our child.
In many ways we feel the same dumbfounded disbelief with which we watched the twin towers of the World Trade Centre crumble. That event brought the concept of the Global Village home. The worldwide phenomenon of teen suicide should do the same.
That’s because, like the other great scourge of the 21st century, HIV/AIDS, teen suicide is not “someone else’s problem”. In fact, the crisis has worsened so that to call it “teen” suicide is a misnomer – some of the victims are only 10 years old! As with other social “evils” such as drug use, sexual deviance, pregnancy and gangsterism, suicide and its causes afflict younger and younger people every day.

The idea of a child being so miserable and desperate that they see death as the only way out of the pain and misery of life, is so alien, painful and wrong that we find it almost impossible to face.
“Unless we as a total society face the harsh reality that it could even, God forbid, happen to my child, we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past,” says Zane Wilson, founder of the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). “This is one of the reasons for Teen Suicide Week. Only now are we beginning to take notice. We need to talk to our children about it and we are – grudgingly – acknowledging that sweeping it under the carpet is the worst thing we can do.”

These are some of the facts of suicide in South Africa. Believe them!

1. The average age of attempted suicides is 15 (a full two years younger than that in the rest of the world of 17)
2 . 31% of these children will have tried before
3 . 50% of them knew someone who had tried before
4 . More than 75% (some estimates as high as 90%) suffer from a diagnosable psychiatric illness
5. 68% of the parents of suicidal teens have substance abuse problems
6. The youngest recorded suicide in South Africa is 10
7. One in 10 adolescents die by their own hands
8. The sharpest rise in teen suicides is among black communities
9. One in every 12 adolescents have tried to kill themselves
10. Teenagers who are HIV are 36 times more likely to kill themselves
11. There is one suicide every hour in South Africa.

In response to these shock findings of a research project conducted by Professor Lourens Schlebusch of the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, SADAG in conjunction with the Directorate of Mental Health funding launched the Teen Suicide Toll free Help Line in October last year.

The number – 0800 567 567 – has been phenomenally successful with more than 8000 thousand calls taken by a taskforce of specially trained counsellors. “Obviously, keeping track of actual successes is very difficult, but the mere fact that so many young people make the commitment to reaching out, to asking for help, is a positive indication.” Says Wilson. "One of the reassuring aspects of the calls is how many have come from friends of distressed teens, who recognise their friends are needing help and don't know where to turn. Even teachers are taking distressed children into their own homes and looking for help.

SADAG works through schools to help teachers identify learners in crisis and simultaneously teaching teens what to watch out for in their friends and telling them how to help in even the most minimal ways, can help prevent a Suicide attempt."

“As has been the case with numerous other illnesses – HIV/Aids, Schizophrenia even Epilepsy – ignorance, denial and myth usually only aggravate the problem. We take over a 100 calls per day of which at least 2 or 3 are suicide attempts (we are called by a passerby or family member about a child on a roof top or who has taken chemicals) or about to take place".

“Our aim with Teen Suicide Week is to spotlight the problem and, by focusing public attention, make people aware; people who can help. These are mostly parents, friends, relatives and role models such as teachers, ministers and social workers. We have available for schools, posters and stickers with the Crisis Line telephone number on it. We have brochures available, which show the signs of Depression, and the warning signs of Suicide. We would like schools to contact us so that we can arrange distribution to even the most rural of schools. We also go into schools and give workshops to teachers and pupils.”

Contact SADAG on 011 783 1474 should you want a presentation at your school. Our largest projects this year are in the Northern Cape area, Mpumalanga and the North Western Province both of which have been highlighted as having very little mental health services in place for teens.

“By facing this problem full on, we, as a society, can help turn fear, ignorance, denial and myth into a healing process. Through understanding the pressures acting on our children and by helping them to deal with these serious issues, we can help turn their fear and despair and loneliness into courage, hope and power. We owe it to our children for without them there will not be a future to which to look forward,” says Wilson.