SUICIDE IN SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLS: HOW TO COMBAT THE INCREASING NUMBERS
According to the popular saying, our school days are supposed to be the best days of our lives. But the alarming increase in teen suicides world-wide, means that more and more young people are giving up on life in their prime years. Suicide is the second largest cause of death (after accidents) among 15-24 year olds, and over the past two decades suicidality amongst men in this age group has increased by 66%.(1).
In the South African context, suicidality in teens and young adults is emerging as an important mental health issue that needs to be addressed. In a recent study, it was found that nearly 20% of students in the Cape Peninsula reported having seriously thought about harming themselves in a way that may result in death, within a twelve-month period. Almost 8% of the sample had actually attempted suicide before, whilst 57.7% of the sample had told someone of their intentions to end their lives.(2). How can we help prevent vulnerable teens from turning to suicide as their last resort?
The life phases of adolescence and young adulthood can be particularly difficult. The youth of today have to deal with the tumultuous emotions that accompany puberty as well as forming a separate identity from their primary family group in an increasingly demanding and competitive society. The social trend towards marriage later in life and increasing divorce rates also means that young people tend to spend far more time alone. A prominent psychologist based in Johannesburg agrees with this view: “the physical, social and academic changes that occur in adolescence can be overwhelming. Unresolved conflicts from childhood years often surface in this period. In fact, the early symptoms and signs of psychological disorders often first emerge in late adolescence (15–18 years).”
There are a number of behavioral changes that could indicate that a teen is severely depressed or suicidal. Declining grades, extreme behavior and mood change (persistent depression), loss of previous interest, risk-taking behavior, drug or alcohol use, social withdrawal and a break in a key relationship are all important warning signs that parents should look out for. Additionally, teen suicide often occurs shortly after a stressful event such as a disciplinary crisis or a recent disappointment or rejection (eg: fight with girlfriend, exam or job failure). Research also indicates that high levels of anxiety or anger are commonly present just prior to a suicide attempt.
Youngsters who commit suicide are more likely to come from a “broken home” or one in which there is significantly poor parent-child communication. Approximately a third of teen suiciders had made a previous suicide attempt, Psychiatric diagnoses are present in about 90% of all suicides. To a large extent, depression has become a fairly good predictor of suicide. Depressive disorders alone or in combination with aggressive behavior and/or substance abuse or anxiety are found in over half of all suicides.(3).
In response to the increasing number of suicides amongst SA teens and young adults, the South African Depression and Anxiety support Group launched a Depression and Suicide Prevention Program (DSPP) in February this year. The Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Network (GAMIAN) developed the program for use by support groups and healthcare professionals throughout the world. The DSPP provides support groups and healthcare professionals with comprehensive material and guidance to launch an awareness campaign in their district or country. During the second half of this year, the program will be focused exclusively on adolescents and school talks. South Africa is the first country outside USA to implement the program.
The DSPP has several goals. These include raising awareness of the causes and appropriate treatment for depression, educating mental health professionals and general practitioners about depression and suicide, improving recognition, diagnosis and treatment for suicidal patients, improving understanding of compliance and adequate length of therapy and ultimately reducing the number of suicides and suicide attempts in the South African context.
There is high praise for the DSPP from knowledgeable professionals. Dr. Franco Colin, a prominent Pretoria psychiatrist, believes that awareness and education are imperative to reduce or control the increasing rate of suicide in South Africa. “Early recognition of mental disorders in general is vital to detecting signs of suicidal behavior. Educating professionals and the public to behavior indicative of suicide is necessary to alleviate the problem and reach out to those who are suffering.”
If a teen or young adult is feeling suicidal, it is important that he/she is given effective counseling and treatment. Crisis services such as helplines remain an important source as an immediate measure. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group supplies counseling, information and referrals. The Support Group, which is open Monday to Saturday from 8 am to 7pm, can be contacted on (011) 783 1474/6 or (011) 884 1797.
The Support Group also has over 75 active regional Support Groups operating countrywide. Research has shown that group systems are beneficial for members of all ages. Trust, connection and unconditional support are important group components that keep members coming back. Teens with suicidal warning signs can deal with their problems effectively in a group environment before their problems escalate beyond self-help.
Teen suicide is a serious mental health issue which has far-reaching consequences for families and friends. Educational programs, such as the DSPP, play an invaluable role in increasing awareness of suicide and depression in South African communities and schools, as well as offering practical interventions and help.
Suicidal teens and their parents should follow these tips:
· Get your symptoms (warning signs) treated early by a doctor. Don’t wait until you are in trouble.
· Develop a plan with others to make sure you are never alone when you are deeply depressed or feeling out of control.
· Have regularly scheduled health care appointments and keep them.
· Throw away all old medication you are no longer taking.
· Avoid alcohol and/or drugs
· Keep pics of your favourite people with you or in visible locations at all times.
· If you drive, be sure a friend or family member knows to take away your car keys when you are feeling suicidal.
· Always try to have something to look forward to.