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Teen suicides on upswing

Passions of the heart rather than financial woes account for a growing number of suicides in Southern African nations as diverse as prosperous and well-developed South African and small, traditional Swaziland.

”Suicides were virtually unknown a century ago in African culture. People simply did not take their own lives,” said psychiatrist Wesley Thwala of Mbabane, Swaziland.

”There were less economic pressures for Africans a generation or more ago, but more importantly everyone had a strong sense of identity within a familial and community structure,” Thwala said. With the breakdown of the extended family, that sense of security and often identity was lost. People are becoming westernised in the sense that they feel more isolated and alone with no one to confide in, their emotion crises fester, grow larger, and when they are all-consuming, people opt for self-destruction, he said.

”People have no one to talk to. There’s no little mother or great uncle in the next hut to put things into perspective,” Thwala said.

How bad is the upswing in suicides? One of the few countries in the region to keep adequate medical data for much of its population, South Africa has traced a rise in job-related suicides among policemen and security force personnel.

Said Janis Simelane, a social worker in Nelspruit, South Africa: ”African soldiers used to be the most secure men in their roles, their identities, their masculinity. But disrespect for police that is a holdover from the apartheid days, when security forces enforced a state terror campaign, still lingers. This makes it much harder to do a dangerous job that requires cooperation and, yes, respect from the public.”

Less easy for suicide counsellors like Simelane to explain are teenage suicides, which are on the upswing, doubling since 1990 for children between the ages 10 and 14, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group (Sadag).

Depression is the motive for 60% of teenage suicides, the support group’s studies have found. Teenagers interviewed by counsellors have betrayed romantic, even glamorous notions about suicide.

”They want a tragic Tolstoy heroine, dramatically ending a romantic dilemma with a grand gesture of self destruction,” Simelane said.

But peer pressure in school, the need to perform well academically, socially and in sports, also contributes to teen depression that can foster suicides, Sadag reported. With six suicidal deaths per 100 000 teenagers, South Africa has the world’s eighth highest teenage suicide rate.

The most favoured method of self-destruction among South Africans is hanging. This is followed by shooting, and then death by affixation (gas) and self-immolation (burning).

In Swaziland, a small and less developed neighbour of South Africa, most suicides are performed with poison, using inexpensive weevil tablets sold for rodent control. Hanging follows as a preferred method and then death by firearm.

The news this week that eleven Swazis have taken their lives since January has made national headlines in a country with less than a half-million adults.

It is not the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare that compiles suicide statistics. It is the job of the Swaziland National Police Force to keep tabs on suicides, which they investigate as a criminal activity. People who attempt suicide and fail are arrested.

Police Assistant Superintendent Vusi Masuku said that most suicides result from troubled relationships, often between spouses or lovers.

”Usually, a suicide note is left behind. The person explains that he or she is having problems with their boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives,” Masuku said.

In the absence of immediate family members, other means of finding emotional support are required, said Police Superintendent Lekina Magagula.

”We have set up a domestic Violence Unit to give people a chance to talk things over,” she said. Magagula heads the unit, which was established in the wake of an upswing in spousal and child abuse cases.

Domestic violence, like suicide, was hardly known among closely-knit Swazi society two generations ago. Most Swazis lived in family homesteads for their entire lives, rarely venturing out of their chiefdoms. Even arranged marriages were accepted by young people as the natural order of things.

”There was no one ‘alone’ then, because you were always surrounded by people you could talk to. There was no competition, either, the way it is today – people fighting over lovers, money, everything,” recalled Gogo Matsebula, an elderly woman who looks after three grandchildren.

”My daughter and her husband – the parents of the little ones I take care of — died of Aids. I think the reason Swazis don’t want to know if they have HIV is it would depress them more, and some would kill themselves,” she said.

”Many people who learn they are HIV-positive contemplate suicide. They think they have an immediate death sentence from Aids hanging over their heads. It’s not true,” said 49-year-old Sempiwe Hlope, an HIV-positive women, who founded a counselling group for other women living with HIV/Aids.

”When you find that you are not alone, when you can share your burden with others who carry the same burden, you feel less lonely, you feel relieved and better,” Hlope said.

Last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) said suicide was causing almost half of all violent deaths, resulting in almost one million fatalities globally every year. The UN health agency suggested that fatalities could rise to 1,5-million by 2020.

”Globally, suicides represent 1,4% of the Global Burden of Disease, but the losses extend much further. There is, however, little information on suicide from African countries. There are estimated to be 10-20 times the number of deaths in failed suicide attempts, resulting in injury, hospitalisation, emotional and mental trauma, although no reliable data is available on its full extent,” the WHO said. — IPS

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James Hall
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