The past two decades have seen exponential developments in technology and access to information, at a pace which would make most heads spin, but with these rapidly changing times has come an increase in pressure to achieve and succeed, as well as a breakdown in family and community support structures.
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.
For this reason the Depression and Anxiety Support Group recently hosted a well-attended public meeting at the Sandton Library, where guest speakers Colinda Linde and Wendy Sinclair dealt with the issues of exam stress and teenage suicide.
Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist who specialises in stress management, defined stress as occurring when our "perceived demands are greater than our coping resources". She also explained that there are different types of stress, for example chronic stress, like a illness, which remains constant over time; perennial stress, like exams, which occurs periodically; and hassles, little things that when compounded can be even worse than one main stressor.
Although some stress is always necessary for functioning, when it becomes excessive it can lead to an imbalance that is both physical and psychological, which is destructive and leads to impairment in our functioning. Colinda went on to explain how to recognise the imbalance that stress causes and what to do to rectify the situation. The symptoms of excessive stress include irritability, mood swings, lowered performance, sleep disturbance, irrational and negative thoughts, and increased autonomic arousal (rapid breathing and an increased heart rate).
She then illustrated some practical solutions to reduce and prevent stress:
· When we are stressed, we lose vital vitamins and minerals. Therefore these should be replenished by healthy eating and by taking a multi-vitamin.
· Exercise! Excess energy created by stress, rather than being kept inside, should be channeled into our muscles.
· Talking about emotions is an important way to de-stress. We should utilise our social support structures (family and friends) for emotional as well as practical support, companionship and advice.
· What we think has a very real effect on how we feel, and when stressed we become irrational and negative. We can change our thoughts by looking at the actual facts of the situation, looking for real evidence of what we believe to be true and by looking at all the alternatives available.
· It is vital to plan what we are going to study i.e. what and when, and to be realistic about it. It is also necessary to take regular breaks, as we can't store too much information without them. A routine of 40 - 50 minutes of study, 10 minutes break, 40 - 50 minutes of study, 10 minutes break, 40 - 50 minutes of study, 30 - 45 minutes break, was suggested.
For more information, telephone counseling or referrals to various mental health professionals, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group can be contacted, Monday to Fridays, between 8am and 7pm, and on Saturdays, between 8am and 5pm, on (011) 783 - 1474/6.
Wendy Sinclair, an educational psychologist, then explained that the teenage years are tumultuous and difficult and that it is normal for teenagers to feel angry and frustrated. She distinguished between males and females, in that boys direct their anger outwards whereas girls tend to direct it inwards, boys act out and become aggressive and girls become quiet and reflective, more males commit suicide whereas more females threaten to do it.
Wendy also pointed out some of the possible causes or triggers of teenage suicide. These include abuse in the home, a break-up of an important relationship or social isolation. Warning signs include: a persistently depressed mood, eating and sleeping disorders, social withdrawal and increased isolation, statements or comments that hint of suicide e.g. how many tablets would someone have to take to kill themselves, plan of action, or a history of previous attempts. Wendy warned that if a teenager talks about suicide, they must always be taken seriously.
In the event of a crisis, the person must immediately be removed from any possible danger (weapons, pills) and professional help should be arranged as soon as possible. Be empathetic, listen to the person and focus on the positive. Talk about their strengths and reasons for living.
Wendy concluded by saying that teen suicide is preventable. We must all be more aware of teen stressors and on the lookout for any warning signs.