With almost 18% having contemplated suicide, it’s clear that teens are troubled. Before it’s too late, here are some tips for preventing teen suicide…

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), 17,6% of teens had considered attempting suicide while one in four university students had been diagnosed with depression.

“With the matric final exams about to start, as well as all other exams for other grades and at Universities, students will be dealing with increased pressure and stress, on top of everything they have been dealing with throughout the year,” says clinical psychologist and SADAG board member, Zamo Mbele.

Wednesday the 10th of October is World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme is Youth and Mental Health.

It starts with depression

Dr Sebolelo Seape, chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group (PsychMG) says the prevention of teen suicides starts with better understanding of the symptoms of depression.

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“Most people with depression are not suicidal, but most suicidal people are depressed,” she says, hence the importance of knowing the symptoms of depression.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is globally the third highest disease burden amongst teens and suicide the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds globally.

The 2011 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) found that a quarter of grade 8-11 learners across all South Africa’s provinces had felt so sad or hopeless that they couldn’t engage in their usual daily activities for two weeks or more. More than one in six had thought about suicide, made plans to commit suicide, or attempted it at least once in the past six months.

“This suggests a large proportion of teenagers are suffering from mental and emotional health problems. The youth are the future of our country and we need to act to prevent the devastating consequences of them losing their hope for the future,” says Dr Seape.

What causes depression in teens?

Dr Seape says that the causes of depression and related mental illnesses in teenagers and young adults are multi-faceted.

“There is the stressful nature of the teenage years – for some teenagers, the normal developmental changes of these years, such as bodily changes, new patterns of thoughts and feelings can be unsettling and overwhelming.”

“There are social changes too, like changing schools, the pressure of final exams, the prospect of leaving home to start tertiary studies or a job; as well as other stress factors such as family issues, changes in their friend networks, and the pressure to succeed.

She says that when teens face problems that appear too big, too difficult or embarrassing to overcome, suicide may look like their only option.

Suicide in South Africa: 23 People die every day

What are the warning signs?

She said warning signs that a teen may have suicidal thought could include the following:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Running away from home
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Unnecessary risk-taking behaviour
  • Obsession with death and dying
  • Numerous physical complaints linked to emotional distress
  • Feelings of boredom, agitation, nervousness, sadness, loneliness or hopelessness

Take substance abuse and family history of mental illness into account

Dr Seape says that existing mental illness, substance abuse and family histories of mental illness, suicide, substance abuse and violence all heightened the risk of suicide with a previous attempt being the strongest predictor of another suicide attempt.

Suicides rarely happen without warning, and learning and recognising these signals is the most effective way to prevent suicide says Dr Seape.

Listen to teens

Dr Seape says all threats of suicide must be taken seriously.

“Some teenagers may actually pass verbal hints by talking about death and dying directly or indirectly. They may talk about wanting to die, begin to dispose of much-loved possessions and write a suicide note.”

Parents, teachers and friends concerned about a teenager at risk of suicide should be willing to listen without judgement, provide reassurance that they care, and to ask questions about suicidal thoughts.

“Don’t try to argue them out of suicide and avoid guilt-inducing statements like ‘suicide will hurt your family’. Rather let them know that you care and want to understand, that they are not alone, and that problems and suicidal feelings are temporary – that depression can be treated and problems can be solved,” she said.

Get help

People wanting to help a depressed teenager could suggest that they talk to a teacher, doctor, counsellor and offer to go with them for support.

If you think someone is on the brink of committing suicide, Dr Seape advises on taking them to an emergency room immediately.

For free telephonic counselling, anyone can call one of helplines listed below:

  • Dr Reddy’s Help Helpline – 0800 21 22 23
  • Pharmadynamics Police & Trauma Helpine – 0800 20 50 26
  • Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline – 0800 70 80 90
  • Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students – 0800 41 42 43
  • ADHD Helpline – 0800 55 44 33
  • 24hr Department of Social Development Substance Abuse helpline – 0800 12 13 14
  • SMS 32312
  • 24hr Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0800 567 567
  • 24hr Cipla Mental Health Helpline – 0800 456 789
  • 24hr University of Cape Town Student Helpline – 0800 24 25 26
  • 24hr University of Pretoria Student Careline – 0800 747 747
  • University of the Western Cape After hours Student Helpline – 0800 222 333
  • 24hr Discovery Medical Student Helpline – 0800 323 323
  • Tshwane University of Technology After-hours Student Helpline – 0800 687 888

Sources: Psychiatry Management Group and South African Depression and Anxiety Group

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.