TEEN SUICIDE – THE NEW THREAT
Suicide. The word brings to mind various sad or violent images. Perhaps a lonely old person on Christmas day. An embezzler jumping from his office window when the auditors arrive. An embittered man topping his ex-wife before turning the gun on himself. A person wanting to end the interminable suffering of an incurable illness, or the most common image - that of an adult unable to escape from a relentless black hole of depression.
There are certainly not many of us who would equate a quiet ten year old or a typical teenager with suicide. And yet, some 9% of deaths among South Africa’s youth, some as young as ten, are due to suicide. This statistic is markedly above the norm for adults.
Reports of non-fatal suicide attempts among children are even more horrifying. The Durban Parasuicide Study (DPS) revealed that the child and adolescent group is the second most at risk age group for non-fatal suicide attempts; after young adults.
Children and adolescents account for one third of non-fatal suicide attempts, with children as young as 9 trying to kill themselves. Add to this, the finding that up to 4% of school children contemplate suicide and, of these, almost 8% have attempted it - and alarm bells should be ringing.
“There’s a major link between depression and suicide and it’s not hard to see why” says Zane Wilson, founder and CEO of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). “Depression involves a long lasting, sad mood that doesn’t let up and a loss of pleasure in things you once enjoyed. It involves thoughts about death, negative thoughts about oneself and a sense of worthlessness.”
South Africa’s fatal suicide rate is higher than the global ratio reported by the World Health Organisation. With fatal suicides reflecting an average age distribution of 36.3 years, South Africa is consistent with a global trend indicating a shift from the elderly to younger people.
“For most teens, a short depression is but a passing mood” explains Zane Wilson. “We all suffer from bouts of sadness, loneliness, grief and disappointments. These are normal reactions to life’s struggles. But undiagnosed depression can lead to tragedy. Up to one third of all suicide victims have made previous suicide attempts. To a teenage girl of 15, who has been constantly abused by her stepfather, a boy who has lost his elder brother to gang violence or a child of 12 whose mother has recently died of AIDS, it might seem less painful to end it all. Sometimes they feel there is nothing to look forward to.”
Professor Laurens Schlebusch, Suicidologist with the Department of Medically Applied Psychology at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of Natal of Natal, is one of the foremost world experts on suicide. He has been instrumental in bringing South Africa’s alarming suicide trends to world attention since addressing the XXII World Congress of the International Association for Suicide Prevention in Stockholm, Sweden, Sweden at the end of 2003.
Professor Schlebusch estimates that currently, there are at least 20 to 25 suicides per day in South Africa. “Depression, especially major depression, is a very serious and life-threatening condition. It needs to be treated with great care and circumspection and a well monitored regimen of medications and therapy” he says. Apart from the common causes of depression, people with HIV and AIDS are 36 times more likely to commit suicide.
Most adults are able to verbalise their feelings and seek help, but what’s being done to save the children? In the absence of any meaningful government interventions, inspired young adults themselves are stepping into the void to help their communities. Following SADAG workshops aimed at teaching youngsters how to help friends who show signs of depression and suicidal tendencies, a few volunteer counselors are taking action. Armed with SADAG brochures and the suicide support line number 0800 567 567, the volunteers have been hard pressed to keep up with the needs in the most affected communities.
Warren Ahjum and Mario Maneville are two motivated young men who took up the challenge as volunteer counselors in the Kimberley area, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, especially among children and adolescents. According to Mario, there were over 67 suicides over a seven month period in 2004 and police reports of attempted suicides are in the region of 15 a week.
“The community is very impoverished” says 25 year old Warren. “There’s a lack of facilities and hardly any access to social workers. Kids feel isolated, helpless. In a lot of cases they are unable to address their problems at home and there is nobody to talk to. There might be alcoholism among parents, or their parents have no education and are illiterate. There’s a very high HIV / AIDS rate. Kids leave school and they don’t know what to do next. There’s no help, no recruitment, nobody to help them draw up a CV. There are no facilities. We are trying to implement some positive things. We want to build their self esteem through various support structures.”
“We want to teach kids to believe in themselves again” adds Mario Maneville, 29 and engaged to be married to the ‘love of his life,’ a nurse who is just as passionate about helping the community as he is. “No matter how poor you are or how bad your situation is, you have talents and you can achieve anything.”
They should know. Both Warren and Mario grew up in the ganglands of Cape Town. It was during an outreach programme aimed at addressing gangsterism, drug, alcohol and sex abuse that they landed up in Kimberley and found the need of the community too great to ignore. They have settled in the community and have full time jobs and very little personal time.
“People don’t dream any more. They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel” says Warren. “We’re trying to get them to recognise that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope. You can make a success of your life. My vision for my own life is to be living proof of that. I want to go back to Cape Town one day. But my work is not finished here. There’s still too much to do.”
Mario agrees but can’t see an end in sight yet. There’s just too much to be done. Support group meetings are held at private homes, involving parents as much as possible. Apart from counseling groups, life skills training and non alcohol disco parties, they hope to extend the facilities for the youth groups. They would like to see sports and recreational facilities, vocational guidance and cultural and environmental excursions. They also produce and perform in educational dramas at schools, counsel teachers and children after a teen suicide and run drug awareness campaigns.
The Education Department and social service have been lending moral support, but The Youth Action Movement is cash strapped, volunteers dipping into their own pockets for taxi fare to get to youth meetings.
Without any organizations focused on teen suicide prevention, the Marion Radical Youth Missions and the Warren Youth United in Christ movements were founded by Mario Maneville and Warren Ahjum. In order to pool scant resources, the two youth outreach groups later teamed up under one banner, the United Youth Action movement.
“We can now work together and we hope to raise funds to help us reach our goals.
In the absence of funding, their methods of reaching the youth have been creative. They have instituted a leadership programme and have young volunteers assisting them, one of them a previous suicide risk. To raise awareness, they have been organizing street bashes at which they set up public address systems and invite public debate, a guaranteed crowd puller.
Working against the odds in the impoverished community of Berkeley West is Nkosi Nathi, an unemployed 22 year old man who has been involved in peer education and counseling movements since school days. He has done all the volunteer courses available through SADAG and hopes one day to have the resources to study Psychology. Meanwhile, he and his friend Bizzahkee Tsamang have already saved many lives with their outreach programmes, including Nkosi’s own cousin. Kids are going to outreach meetings of their own accord and even married couples are calling on Nkosi for counseling.
“This community is really suffering” says Nkosi. “There is extreme poverty. Some guys who matriculated in 1994 are still without jobs. They have lost hope. There is so much potential among the youth but there are no facilities, no guidance and many of them land up in jail. We have outreach programmes in jail too. It’s never too late.”
Suicide is common in Nkosi’s area, especially in the 10 to 19 year age group and young parents in their 30s. It’s hard to believe that a ten year can understand the finality of suicide but Nkosi explains “She absolutely understands. There is a sense of hopelessness. She doesn’t have anybody to talk to and she’s hurting really badly. It’s like being in a dark room, with no window, no airbrick and no escape.”
With some financial assistance from the business community, Nkosi and Bizzhakee have even organized a three week bush camp for troubled teens over the next holiday. It will be far away from peer pressure, drugs and alcohol. “Communing with nature is the best therapy” says Nkosi, who uses the bush himself to distress. “We have the kids sit quietly on their own and listen to the sounds around them. We ask them to write down all their thoughts. Silence relieves stress.”
Closer to the city, life skills teacher Lisa Anderson has been instrumental in setting up a pilot project at her school titled “Suicide shouldn’t be a secret” in which youngsters will be able to discuss their problems and learn coping skills.
Lisa has also established new youth centre in Randburg aimed at teaching kids how to recognise the signs and symptoms of depression and life skills to cope with it. Lisa believes that city kids, especially those living in impoverished townships, face more pressures and stress than their rural counterparts.
All four young people have recognized the unique situations of the communities in which they are making a difference. They may have some divergent views, but they all agree emphatically on one thing – the SA youth are in crisis!
“Mental health matters” says Zane Wilson. “It should matter to all of us.”
It is with this plea that South Africa’s attention is drawn to Teen Suicide Prevention Week from 21st to 27th February.
Some 7 000 lives will be cut short in 2005. Isn’t it time we asked ourselves how we can help?
A donation to Radical Youth Missions is one way:
Radical Youth Missions – Account details for donations.
Name of bank: Standard Bank
Account Name: Radical Youth Missions
Account Number: 143935232
Teen suicide helpline: 0800 567 567
South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 011 783 1474
SADAG Website: www.anxiety.org.za
Issued by Ronnie Whitaker of Quirky House
Telephone 011 791 4525 or 011 791 1941 or 082 859 9190
On Behalf of SADAG – South African Depression and Anxiety Group
Telephone 011 783 1474
Interview with Mario Maneville
Cell: 073 279 9190
You are involved with Warren in teen suicide prevention work in the Kimberley area? After my chat with Warren, I am just blown away by all the time you put into these projects, on a voluntary basis. How do you cope with working on a day job as well?
It was supposed to be sort of “after hours” but it’s getting harder to maintain. I am lucky that I have my own business now – in computers, and so it allows me some freedom
You are also from Cape Town? What led you to Kimberley?
Yes, Warren and I are both from Cape Town. I have been involved in community work since school. We came to Kimberley when we heard about the high suicide rates among the youth. A lot of families are in crisis. Now I am so involved, I decided to stay here until the work is done. I just felt a calling to do it.
Do you have any statistics on the suicide rate in the communities you work with?
The police get reports of attempted suicides and they tell me it’s running at about 15 attempted suicides a week. It’s hectic in Kimberley. There’s not too many people doing things to help. I was away in Cape Town for December and when I got back here, it was upsetting to hear how many attempted suicides there were. Holidays are the worst because that’s when people get really depressed.
Do you agree with Warren that immoral behavior is a major link?
Definitely. If we can reach the youth and teach them coping skills, they will learn how to cope without turning to mechanisms like drugs, gangsterism and alcohol. There is a great need for a moral regeneration programme. We work with families too – we try to teach parents how to help the child.
Living in such deprived environments, such poverty and unemployment and lack of resources, do you think there really is any hope for kids like that?
Hey – of course, there is. Kids, even though they come out of very poor families, aren’t different from rich kids. They have the same talents. They have great gifts. They just have to learn to believe in themselves.
So, your support groups are helpful to them?
For sure. We have three kids who tried to commit suicide. They all landed in hospital. Now they are doing well. They’re all back at school. Hopefully they won’t do it again, but we keep an eye on them. We involve them, get them to talk. If we leave them isolated, usually they will do it again. Most fatal suicides were attempted suicides in the past. The attempts just get more violent until they succeed.
Are you getting through to the parents?
We are reaching the parents. Some parents are helping us now. Look, any parent loves his kid, so they will want to be involved in helping their kids.
Do you think Kimberley has the highest teen suicide rate?
I don’t know. But it’s bad here. It’s hard to get exact figures. The cops have a social worker they use but in most of the incidents, the attempted suicide doesn’t even reach the cops. Girls take pills and that’s not usually fatal. Guys are more violent.
I think the situation here is critical.
Do you think SA Youth is in crisis?
I would say yes. Last year 67 kids killed themselves in a seven month period.
But how do you know when a child is in crisis? How do you know when a kid is planning to kill himself? Are there any signs to look out for?
Parents know their kids. So, if you see different behaviour, out of the normal, then you should start to worry. Some kids start continually looking for attention; or they become very difficult, argumentative, start fights. Or they might quit school or activities, like lose interest in everything, stay locked up in their rooms, don’t go out with friends. Also some depressed kids are always trying to please. Others start having tantrums. Definitely, there are clear signs you can watch out for.
Is there anyone working with you now, saving others, who was a suicide risk in the past?
Yes. We have one young woman – she attempted suicide. Now she’s a counselor leading one of our groups. She’s such a success story. It makes it all worth it.
How do you cope yourself? Under this continual pressure, surrounded by hopelessness and poverty and trying to save the kids – how do you keep above it yourself? Don’t you ever get depressed and think to hell with it, I’m out of here?
I have been depressed, sure. In situations like we have here, you as a counselor, can get depressed. The pressure of parents, the community, worrying about kids you’re working with – it can get to you. The best way to deal with it is to talk about it. As counselors, we all meet and talk about it. We work with ourselves the same as we work with the kids, through talking it out.
The same system is working with the kids – if you speak to the parents, you will know it’s making a difference.
What’s your personal motivation?
There was a lot of drug abuse and gangsterism where I grew up. My mother always helped people. We used to have strange people sleeping over in our house. Community spirit – it’s the way I grew up. I believe in good and I always wanted to help people. The big thing that led me to it was the youth. My father works with the youth in Cape Town too, so it’s a family affair. It’s the way we do things.
And so, with all this sacrifice of yourself and your time, do you have any time left over for a personal life? Do you have a girlfriend? Will you get married?
I have a wonderful fiancé. We are getting married in April this year. Luckily, the love of my life is just as passionate about helping the community as I am, so there won’t be any problems – she’s a nurse.
Interviewed by Ronnie Whitaker of Quirky House
Telephone 011 791 4525 or 011 791 1941 or 082 859 9190
On behalf of SADAG – The South African Depression and Anxiety Group
Teen suicide helpline: 0800 567 567
South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 011 783 1474
SADAG Website: www.anxiety.org.za
TEEN SUICIDE PREVENTION WEEK
Interview with Warren Ahjum
Telephone: office 053 832 1510 Cell 083 641 8495
I believe you are doing a lot of work with the youth in the Kimberley area, specifically related to preventing teen suicides?
We try to actively identify the real problems in the community, like spiritual problems, boredom, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse. You can’t fix the depression and suicide among teens until you fix their behaviour.
So, you believe that these things lead to depression?
Absolutely, yes. We think that a lot of the problems stem from moral problems in the community. If we can regenerate this, then a lot of the causes of depression, which leads to thoughts of suicide will fall away.
There are a lot of social problems in the area – school drop out rate, peer pressure, domestic violence, poverty.
We try to reach youth with problems and get them into programmes that will help them to learn life skills.
It’s important for kids to be in an environment where there is a sense of caring and loving so that they feel that there is something to live for.
Do you run support groups for teens in crisis?
We have support groups and work with SADAG a lot, especially when we have need of trained counselors. We are just volunteers. We aren’t trained as counselors, so when we come across a kid who needs expert help, we refer them to the experts. But just in the support groups, you will see that when kids start to talk about their problems, they find other kids with similar problems and this establishes a support base.
In a lot of cases they are unable to address their problems at home and there is nobody to talk to. There might be alcoholism among parents, or their parents have no education, are illiterate. Kids leave school and they don’t know what to do next. There’s no help, no recruitment, nobody to help them draw up a CV
We are trying to implement some positive things. We want to offer them things to do on weekends, other than drugs or alcohol or sex.
Through sheer boredom, a lot of kids turn to these things, and gangs. There’s a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, sexual abuse. If we can get a moral upliftment program going, if we can fix a lot of these problems and get kids to want to live by better morals, I truly believe we will reduce the suicide rate.
Do you think there’s a definite link between teen suicide and substance abuse or alcohol abuse?
Oh definitely. Look, for one thing, if you are drinking alcohol, it will help to give you the courage to do it. For another, alcohol and substance abuse leads to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
How do you propose to get kids off drugs if they are addicted?
We’re trying to reach kids through the schools. We’re doing talks on substance abuse. The department of education is helping us to reach the children and we are trying to stop drug trafficking in our area.
Is the department of education helpful?
They are very interested in getting these problems sorted out. We liaise with each other. They even phone us from time to time to ask us how it’s going and together we are trying to implement programmes aimed at this. But there’s no money available for it. Just moral support.
Are schools aware of the teen suicide risk?
They are now. We have had an awareness campaign – so now most people are aware of the problem and are beginning to recognise the problem areas.
It’s quite a tough job for two little guys on their own. Is there any assistance?
The trouble is funding. We desperately need funds. You know, we don’t even have cars. We have to take taxis to visit the prisons, the hospitals, get to our youth group meetings or to counseling. And we need funds to set up the programmes, like sports facilities, camps, meetings, life skills training. We would love the private sector to help us.
In order to pool resources, we have merged two groups to form the United Youth Action movement. This is made up of the Youth United in Christ and the Radical Youth Movement. Now we have formed this consortium under the banner of United Youth Action, we are working together and hope to raise funds to help us reach our goals.
What led you to do this work, especially on a voluntary basis?
We saw a problem in Kimberly. This area has one of the highest teen suicide rates, maybe even the highest. It’s a big problem There’s a lot of substance abuse. We need a moral revival here. We are following the President’s plea – MRM, the Moral Regeneration Movement. It’s going to be a big job to achieve it, but we will. Already we can see the results.
What about the parents? Isn’t it tough to reach the kids if they are living in homes with parents who have their own problems?
That’s why we are trying to work with the parents too. We are trying to get the parents involved. Like, we rotate support group meetings to various houses.
Are you a young man yourself?
I’m 25 – I suppose that’s young. Do you think that’s young?
I do. It’s certainly not the age at which most guys are interested in helping a bunch of depressed kids. Most guys of 25 would run far away. And you have a day job?
I do. My work with United Youth action is voluntary. It’s difficult as we don’t have cars, so we have to take taxis. And I have to take time off work when I have to attend conferences. Fortunately my management is supportive of the work I am doing.
But you know, it’s important to take a stand. Sooner or later, you have to make a decision – do I go this way or that way? And if kids see you are prepared to take ownership in the community, to make yourself visible and be proud of what you’re doing, that has a big effect. The kids need leaders. Already a lot of kids have approached us wanting to get involved.
But you can’t have much time for a personal life? Do you have the time to have a girlfriend? Yes I do have a girlfriend - She is extremely supportive & I would not change her for anything in the world. She motivates & encourages me with my family that moved to Kimberley last year. To have a support base is very very important and it keeps you going
It is tough. My work takes a lot of time. This year, my goal is to have a more balanced lifestyle and more time for my girlfriend.
That’s why we have set a goal this year to identify leaders. We have started a leadership training programme and we are training them up to be future leaders in the community. It gives them a sense of pride; of belonging.
Did you have it tough as a kid? There must be something that gave you so much empathy with the youth. It’s like you really feel their pain?
Yes, I had it tough. I grew up in Elsies River – in Cape Town. There were all the same problems as in this community – drugs, gangsterism. I survived it. Now I am trying to make a difference in this community. It helps when kids know that someone cares. I try to give them guidance but I can only help to a certain extent.
Don’t you miss Cape Town?
I want to go back to my home town one day. But I am not finished here. I will only leave when we have new leaders in place and everything is running smoothly, when the moral regeneration programme is working and we have reduced the drug and alcohol abuse and the depression and suicide rates.
What’s the thing you most want to achieve?
You know, people don’t dream any more. They are unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope. You can achieve your dreams.
My vision for my own life is to be living proof of that. I want kids to be able to dream again. I want them to believe that anything is possible.
Mostly, I want to make a difference.
You have a great vision. How do you see the future? If you manage to get some funding, what are the things you would like to do?
We want to implement specific programmes that will lead to moral regeneration and give kids meaning. We don’t have enough support groups. There’s such a huge need here, that we need to have a lot more support groups – perhaps a building in which we can meet. We want to organize cultural and environmental excursions. We want to be able to take troubled kids out to the bush so they can learn to appreciate nature. We need sports facilities and social facilities where kids can learn that it is possible to really enjoy life without resorting to drugs or alcohol.
With working with the kids, are you aware of those at risk of suicide? Can you recognise it now?
Yes, there are definite signs. Also in the support groups, we talk about suicide and a lot of youngsters talk about wanting to commit suicide. We try to reach them in time. At a certain point you have to call in a pro. SADAG has three help lines and a lot of kids use it. We often approach social workers but they are so stretched and it’s very difficult to get hold of a social worker when you need one. One of our aims this year is to link up with more social services; to make access easier for everybody.
Do you think that South Africa’s youth is in crisis?
It depends where you live, but I would say the majority are. It’s across all aspects – moral values, schools, home environment, social environment, joblessness, poverty, lack of facilities, lack of life skills training and lack of vocational guidance.
When I was fifteen, it was a different lifestyle. It’s harder now for kids. There’s a lot more peer pressure and the problems around drugs, alcohol and gangs is magnified, much more intense.
Do you think males or females are more at risk of suicide?
So far, we have had more females coming to support meetings than males. The females talk more openly about their problems. (Note, this is different from Nkosi’s findings in Berkeley West. I asked Nkosi why it was the opposite and he said that black women tend to keep quiet and bottle things up whereas black men are more open to dialogue. Nkosi said it’s the opposite of whites and coloureds – interesting) So, we were worried about how to reach the guys. Maybe it’s a “Man” thing. They have to show they’re tough. Not be seen whining. Recently we had a braai for the community and most of the people who came were guys. We had break dancing, rapping, singing – our aim was to prove we could have fun without alcohol or drugs. It was very successful.
Now we want to plan adventure things like white river rafting. Of course, we need funds!
Have you experienced a teen suicide in the community since you’ve been active?
We formed our consortium last year. Also last year there was a teen suicide. We went to the school and spoke to the teachers. We went through the steps with them – the dos and donts. It’s important that there’s a support system in place for the kids. We also did an awareness campaign around teen suicide and drug awareness. We present dramas at the schools too.
Has your group grown?
Yes. We now have 13 guys running it – one from each community. So we have firm a hand on progress in the communities.
The word is spreading. It’s hard though with the lack of funds. We are running from home to home. We need a central place where we can have meetings and workshops. It’s all voluntary, at our own costs, and a lot of the volunteers are unemployed.
We visit communities very visibly.
So don’t the gangsters and the kids doing drugs say “oh, you geeks, just leave us alone?”
Some do but mostly we have a great response. You know we are very upfront and we encourage dialogue because that helps us to reach them. So the other day we organized a bash in one community and we took mikes and a public address system. Then we interviewed people and it came across the public address system. While we were busy, we saw guys gambling and so we went over and interviewed them too – all over the public address system. It had a good effect. It certainly draws the crowds.
Can you describe your community to me? The life there?
We are working in areas where there are no tarred roads, no proper housing in the location. There’s a lot of unemployment. There is extreme poverty. There’s a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and irresponsible sexual activity among the youngsters. There’s a lot of HIV and AIDS.