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SUICIDE SUPPORT GROUP REACHES OUT

INTO SCHOOLS

While all teenagers face the stresses of growing up and maturing and the normal stresses associated with school, for some it can be worse than for others. It is estimated that since 1950 the suicide rate for young men between 15 and 24 has tripled, and that the rate for women between the ages of 15 and 24 has more than doubled.

Whereas thirty years ago most parents wouldn't have dreamed of talking openly with their children about topics like sex, the dangers of unplanned pregnancies, sexual abuse or sexually transmitted diseases, the appearance and rapid spread of AIDS and increased sexual violence have made this essential. These subjects are now openly discussed in schools and at home. Times have changed.

Today's fast pace, the seemingly never-ending lack of time, together with pressure to survive and achieve has increased the average daily stress experienced by most people, most of all, our teenagers. Adolescence, with its hormonal ups and downs, the struggle for identity and independence, school pressure and the start of sexual awareness, is hard enough as it is without the added stressors of increased violence in society, changing gender roles, discrimination, rising divorce rates, increased competition for jobs and resources, and the weakening of social support systems due to changing family units. Today, sadly, teenage suicide is a real threat.

With suicide on the increase in the general population, many adolescents have already been affected by a suicide, whether it be a friend, a famous role model or even a member of their family. This increases their risk as suicide now features in their minds as a possible solution to pain. Sadly due to the stigma of mental illness and the myths that surround suicide, like 'only crazy people do it' or 'that talking about it will somehow cause it', suicide is still a taboo subject that we don't talk to our children about.

We think this sort of thing only happens to other people, until it is too late. There are no words to describe the feelings you experience when you learn about the suicide of a loved one. The initial reaction is usually one of total disbelief and then horror. Devastation is an understatement.

To prevent these tragedies from occurring, teenagers need to be educated about suicide, its causes, its triggers, its consequences and what to do if they suspect a friend is considering suicide or even if they are considering suicide themselves.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group, Africa's largest non-profit, patient advocacy support group, has been educating the public about suicide and fighting the stigma attached to mental illness for the past six years. The group offers counselling, referrals to mental health professionals, and has over 160 support groups in Southern Africa. The group has been targeting schools with the "Suicide Shouldn't be a Secret" Campaign in schools.

Talks are given to classes or standards by trained counsellors. Younger counsellors give the talks as they are easier for the pupils to relate to and the talk is given in the format of an informal discussion rather than a lecture - to encourage the students to open up and express their fears and concerns.

The discussion covers depression - what it is, what it feels like, what causes it, how to recognize it and what to do about it; and suicide - discussing what can drive someone to that decision, the myths surrounding suicide, the bad consequences of failed suicide attempts, risk factors for suicide, signs to look out for in friends, what to do if someone tells you they are thinking about committing suicide and where to go for help.

Talks given so far have been well received and many of the teenagers found it helpful to share their own feelings and concerns and hear that they are not alone. Some of the students' comments after the talks included:

Ø "This presentation was excellent, well-developed, well-presented and well-explained to students. This programme should be ongoing."

Ø "I have learned that life is too precious to destroy and that it is better to lose a friendship than a friend."

Ø "I have a better understanding of suicide and now know the symptoms to look out for and that if someone tells you that they are depressed, you should listen and not avoid them because it can lead to suicide."

Ø "Before this talk, I once tried to commit suicide. I really related to the information given - thanks for the talk";

Ø "I was blind about suicide, but now I know what its all about. I just discovered that I suffer from depression. If no-one had come and spoken to us maybe by the end of the term I would have killed myself. But now I know someone can help."

Fortunately many of us will never know the utter desperation and hopelessness experienced by a person who is suicidal, where the thought of dying seems a better option than continuing to live in pain. For the family members, friends, co-workers and neighbours suicide leaves an overwhelming feeling of senseless loss. Often accompanied by mental illness, suicide can pass from one generation to the next, leaving behind a legacy of stigma, shame, blame and grief.