LEARN THE WARNING SIGNS – SAVE A LIFE
According to recent studies in the United States, teen suicide is still a serious problem accounting for 16% of all suicides recorded. South Africa appears to be following a similar trend with suicidality in teens emerging as an important mental health issue that needs to be addressed.
Suicide prevention measures should focus on teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 years. According to statistics, child suicide only accounts for 1% of all suicides. These findings form part of a universal trend in which suicide before puberty is very rare. The reasons for this phenomenon are still unknown, although one probable hypothesis is that critical risk factors such as depression or exposure to drugs and alcohol are rare in young children. Teens between the ages of 15 – 19, however, make up 6% of all suicides. Most notably, young adults between the ages of 20 – 24 years make up a significant 9% of all suicides studied.
Although in most countries suicide attempts are more common among females than males, in the U.S. nearly six times as many teen boys commit suicide as girls, and in parts of Asia and Latin America the majority of suicides are committed by women. These gender differences in suicidality can be partially explained by the type of psychopathology associated with the suicidal behaviour and the efficacy of favoured suicidal methods.
Suicide rates are higher among whites than those among blacks at all ages, including the teen years. Possible explanations for these ethnic rate differences could include selective under-reporting of suicide amongst different ethnic groups and cultural factors that either promote or inhibit suicide.
Firearms are the most common method used in committing suicide, however, the frequency of method tends to vary by location. Whilst hanging occurs in all areas, jumping is more common in urban areas and asphyxiation is more common is sub-urban areas. Ingestions also account for some suicides.
Suicide often occurs shortly after a stressful event such as a disciplinary crisis, a recent disappointment or rejection (e.g. fight with girlfriend, exam failure, or job failure). Research also indicates that high levels of anxiety or anger are commonly present just prior to a suicide attempt. In South Africa stress levels just before writing matric are very high and this is seen as South Africa’s most worrisome time.
There are a number of risk factors that could turn a troubled teen into a suicidal teen. Firstly, youngsters who commit suicide are more likely to come from a “broken home” or one in which there is significantly poor parent-child communication. Interestingly enough, the factors of marital disharmony and/or parent-child friction don’t seem to play significant roles as predisposing factors. Often, however, suicidal teens have had a close family member or friend who attempted or committed suicide. This could be a function of imitation or genetics.
Secondly, there seems to be an excess of obstetric complication amongst suicides. Mothers of potential suicides received less pre-natal care and were more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol during pregnancy.
Psychiatric diagnoses are present in about 90% of suicides. Depressive disorders alone or in combination with aggressive behaviour and/or substance abuse or anxiety are found in over half of all suicides. Only a small number of suicides occur in schizophrenic or manic-depressive teenagers. Approximately a third of teenage suicide victims have made a previous suicide attempt. Alcohol and drug abuse is also present in significant numbers.
Findings in adult and older adolescent suicide and suicide attempts point towards neurochemical abnormalities. These include low levels of serotonin metabolites and changes in 5HT receptor densities. These findings have not been noted in younger teens, however.
Finally, there seems to be evidence for imitative suicides in which suicidal teens are influenced by media coverage of other suicides. Suicide clusters often occur in these situations. The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group have recently been called in to a Gauteng school where several young women were discussing suicide.
How can we help prevent vulnerable teens from turning to suicide as their last resort? Crisis services such as Help Lines remain an important resource as an immediate measure. Continuous training of medical professionals in the appropriate usage of antidepressant and mood stabilising drugs will also help in reducing suicide rates. On a broader scale, educational approaches that increase awareness of the problem, provide knowledge about the behavioural characteristics of teens at risk for suicide and describe available treatment or counselling resources should also be implemented. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group have this year addressed over 250 Guidance Teachers and Counsellors to improve recognition. We know that Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable.
The Depression and Anxiety Support Group is committed to decreasing the amount of teen suicides plaguing the South African youth. The Support Group will soon be implementing a Depression Awareness/Suicide Prevention Programme sponsored by GAMIAN (Global Alliance for Mental Illness Advocacy Networks). The countrywide education programme will consist of a manual with detailed information on depression and suicide data and prevention; slides and promotional material.
Teen suicide is a serious mental health issue that has far-reaching consequences for families and friends. By increasing knowledge and awareness in the community, we are closer to combating the problem of teen suicide and its many negative repercussions.
“Learn the Warning Signs – Save A Life”