“Teenage suicide is a serious and growing problem,” says Prof Lourens Schlebusch, author of Suicidal Behaviour in South Africa.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 10 and 20% of children and adolescents worldwide have mental health disorders.

Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s.

The ‘South African National Youth at Risk Survey’, focusing on teens from Grade 8 to 11, found that 24% of the youth surveyed had experienced feelings of depression, hopelessness and sadness. Shockingly, a further 21% had attempted suicide.

Teens under pressure

“The teenage years can be emotionally turbulent and stressful because teenagers face pressures to succeed and fit in. They may struggle with self-esteem issues, self-doubt, and feelings of alienation, academic pressures and relationship problems. For some, this leads to suicidal ideation. Depression is also a major risk factor for teen suicidal behaviour,” says Prof Schlebusch, who is based at Life St Joseph’s at Life Entabeni Hospital in Durban.

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According to Prof Schlebusch, suicidal behaviour in the younger generations constitutes a major public health problem.

National preventative programmes, strategies and priorities in many other countries have been developed, but in South Africa this is still needed, although he has published guidelines in this regard in the African Journal of Psychiatry based on a presentation at a conference convened by the Department of Health in 2012.

“Traditionally, suicide rates have shown a positive relationship with age, in that they tended to increase in older people (some six to eight times higher than in younger people), however, recent statistics show that, on a global spectrum, there is now an increase in younger people with suicidal behaviour compared to older people.”

On average, more people die annually from suicide than they do during war

The war within

According to the WHO, approximately one death by suicide occurs every 40 seconds and one attempt is made every one to three seconds.

By 2020, these predictions are expected to increase to one death every 20 seconds and one suicide attempt made every one to two seconds. This means that, on average, more people die annually from suicide than they do during war.

However, suicide is a preventable tragedy and with the appropriate help, treatment and support, lives can be saved.

“Early recognition of risk factors is important for prevention of suicidal behaviour. It is essential that schoolchildren and students are trained to identify and manage conflict situations and crises that could result in suicidal behaviour. By raising awareness of the magnitude and scope of the problem, increasing psycho-social support, providing free counselling to those in need of help, and implementing grassroots suicide prevention strategies, we can reduce the number of suicides in our society,” says Prof Schlebusch.

“As a society we need to better understand the relationship between life stressors, the inability to cope and feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that result in suicide being a preferred solution. It is important that we as family, friends and educators continuously spread the message of hope and access to help” says Dr Riyas Fadal, National Manager of Life Mental Health.

If you suspect someone you know is experiencing mental health problems and needs urgent support, email [email protected] to find out where your nearest Life Mental Health facility is, or visit www.lifehealthcare.co.za/Hospitals/Mental_Health_Services


  1. ‘South African National Youth at Risk Survey 2008’ //www.safmh.org.za/index.php/news/item/143-press-release-talking-about-youth-depression
  2. The Mental Health Care Act No 17 – South Africa. ‘Trials and triumphs: 2002-2012’ https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ajpsy/article/viewFile/83478/73514
  3. ‘Suicidal Behaviour Report 2005’ //www.mrc.ac.za/crime/Chapter13.pdf

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