Teenage suicide: What parents need to know
It's Teen Suicide Prevention Week from the 14-21 February and it's important for parents to keep an eye out for these signs.
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South Africans are often confronted with severe incidents of violence and death, but when news breaks about a teen who has committed suicide, it sends shock waves through the nation. 

Why would budding young people who still have their whole life ahead, revert to such a drastic measure? That’s the question people and relatives often ponder about after such tragedies.

Sadly, teen suicides are definitely on the rise in South Africa, confirms social worker Marianna Deyzel of Akeso Clinic - George a dedicated Adolescent facility.  She also engages in extensive training of social workers to deal with the issue of teen suicide.  

Read: “I want to kill myself”

“Teens tend to be negatively influenced by other teens when one of them commits asuicide. At the same time, today’ teens are more used to the fact of death.  They see it daily on TV and in the video and TV games they play. Death is an everyday reality in our homes.  The word death is not shocking to teens anymore,” Deyzel explains.

According to her, one of the main reasons for teen suicides is increasing pressure at school, home and among friends.  Even issues relating to beauty, fashion and  physical appearance may put more pressure on teens who tend to be brand conscious and aware of their ‘looks’, affecting them negatively.

Then there’s also the scourge of bullying at schools and many children do not have the life skills to handle it.  Worldwide, incidences of cyber-bullying and through social media have already led to teen suicides. This most likely will increase as teens increasingly take to social media.

Another reason is the increase in SA’s divorce rate.  “Teenagers live in broken homes.  A parent leaves home and goes on with their life elsewhere; as a result the teenager feels rejection, one of the strongest negative feelings. “Many times, as a social worker, I‘ve heard a parent say ‘I do not want my child to suffer as my parents were too strict and we were very poor.’ 

Read: Listen, don’t lecture

Thus there is hardly any discipline and structure in the home.  To the contrary, some parents are too strict, leaving the teen no personal space. As a result, the teen feels socially isolated and can’t handle the situation, opting for suicide as the only way out,” Deyzel points out.

In South Africa alcohol abuse has become a serious problem, she adds.  “Children growing up in a home where alcohol freely flows are called ‘the walking wounded’.  They don’t trust, talk or feel.  The negative, suppressed emotions may lead to suicide as there is no hope of any future.”

Statistics

More than 9 percent of teen deaths are caused by suicide, revealed South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the organisation’s Cassey Chambers at the start of the National Teen Suicide Prevention Week in 2014. The aim of Suicide Prevention Week is to educate the public about the warning signs of depression which can lead to suicide in teens.

The biggest contributing factor to teen suicide is undiagnosed and untreated Depression. Over 75% of teens who commit suicide, tell someone first.

Likewise, a Durban Para-suicide study in 2013 found that up to one-third of all attempted suicides seen in hospitals involves children and adolescents.

A research project at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine also indicated that suicide is on the rise in the country and those children as young as 10 are dying by suicide.

Pressure

“Also, more and more teens suffer from depression because of stressful situations and pressure at school, at home, as well as from their peers.  Because of what they see on TV and experience through technology (games, entertainment), the word death does not scare them.  Actually, they see death as the way out of their problems, especially if they do not have the necessary life skills to cope.”

Warning signs

There are numerous tell-tale signs that a young person may be contemplating suicide, says Deyzel. These include:

  • Severe depression or signs of depression over time.
  • A feeling of loss (e.g. death of a loved one, even a pet).
  • Not getting acknowledgement for what they’ve achieved (in a negative sense).
  • Hurting themselves, e.g. cutting.
  • Bullying at school and the feeling of isolation.
  • Parents who are either too strict or too lenient in terms of discipline.
  • Excessive or very little structure at home.
  • Alcohol abuse at home.
  • Substance abuse by the teen.
  • Talking about suicide, death or a general negativity about life.
  • A previous attempt at suicide.
  • Deterioration in the schoolwork.
  • Breaking up of a relationship, which often feels like a life-threatening crisis.
  • Giving away things that were precious to them.
  • A desire to visit places where they were happy e.g. pre-primary school, or to see a person to say thank you, when actually it is to say goodbye.

“However, when a suicide is planned, the teen actually becomes very calm and purpose driven. Their bedroom is suddenly very tidy and the school work up to date. This may lead others to think the teen’s mental state is on the mend,” Deyzel explains.

Myths

“All too often people tend to think a person or family member won’t commit suicide; that he/she is just acting out as a form of manipulation.  “Also, when a teen says he/she feels depressed, tired, and is crying a lot, they are told to change their attitude and stop feeling sorry for themselves.  Fact is that many a teenager who attempts or threatens to commit suicide, eventually does it. “Therefore no attempt or threatening must be ignored.  It is usually a cry for help and intervention is needed to prevent suicide,” Deyzel cautions.

Action

If someone suspects that a friend or family member is considering suicide, they should take action immediately, Deyzel advises. “Warn the parents or other persons close to the teenager about your suspicions.  Instead of criticising, talk to the teenager. And get professional help from a psychologist, psychiatrist or a social worker who is best equipped to detect negative circumstances at home or school and take the necessary steps to intervene, help and bring about a positive change.

“When a teenager is in a really bad state and, for example, and revert to extreme measures such as self-inflicted injuries, but firmly refuses to go for professional help and treatment, they can be forced to get help in terms of article 27 of the Mental Health Act,” stresses Deyzel.

Prevention

It is of utmost importance that schools are educated and trained to prevent suicide, she stresses. “One must remember that knowledge brings the power to prevent suicide.” To this end, Deyzel has trained all the social workers and psychologists of the Department of Education in the South Western district and Karoo region.  Likewise all the teachers at a school in George , and 30 NGO social workers of NGO’s in George were educated.

Reaction

Generally family members tend to have strong guilt feelings when a teenage daughter or son commits suicide. “Typically they would wrestle with the question as to why they did not notice the signs. They experience intense emotional pain and a feeling of hopelessness. More often than not, parents are also cross with themselves and with God.

They also go through a shock phase, especially during the first two months. “Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, family members may also try to hide the fact that it was suicide.  This makes the negative feelings and emotions much worse.  In their mind they look for somebody to blame.

Coping

To best cope with the death of a teenager because of suicide, it is of utmost importance to talk to someone you can trust and have the necessary understanding. Therefore family members should go to a professional person for therapy. Sometimes short term medication is also needed, Deyzel advises. 

“In the mourning process it is important to take it one day at a time.  Crying is part of the healing process. Parents also need to realise that their child will always be part of them.  The pain will soften, but they will miss the teen for the rest of his/her life, so they must talk about the teen as he was part of their life.

“Lastly, they must do certain things, especially during the first year following the suicide, such as burning a candle at a photo and visiting the grave on important days. If there was a cremation, prepare a special place in the garden, plant a tree and put a bench to spend time there.  Most importantly, make peace that you as a parent will never find all the answers,” Deyzel concludes.

About Akeso Clinics

Akeso Clinics is a group of private in-patient psychiatric clinics that prides itself on providing individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment for a range of psychiatric, psychological and addictive conditions. Akeso Clinics offer specialised in-patient treatment facilities.

Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact us on 011 447 0268 for further information.

In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 4357 87 for assistance.

SADAG:

SADAG runs the only toll-free suicide crisis line in SA: 0800 567 567 (open 7 days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 20:00 p.m.).

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