Tackling teenage suicide in South Africa

A 15-year-old family member of mine has allegedly attempted, not once, but twice, to end her life in the last two years.

I found this out recently. The notes she had written highlighting the issues in her life were found by her mother, my cousin, on both occasions.

Just as with many other issues, I had not given the issue of teenage suicide in South Africa a lot of thought until it hit close to home.

Maybe it’s because we’re nearing the matric-result time of the year, or maybe I’m just flushed over hearing of such news within my own family, but I have been thinking a lot about what causes young people to take their own lives, as well as what is being done—or not done—about it.

I have no idea what I would do if, in the midst of raising a teenage girl, I discovered that she was not only unhappy with her life, but that she was so unhappy that she was willing to see it come to an end.

I would have thought a mother who finds herself in that position would require all the strength and support of family and friends, not to mention help in the form of professional advice. To my greatest surprise, my cousin decided that despite the magnitude of this crisis, it made sense to keep it a secret.

Her decision has gnawed at me for a few days. More than the fact that there may be a suicidal teenager in my family, what concerns me is the lack of action from her parents at addressing the problem.

There seems to be a preoccupation with what would happen if people found out.

That their daughter is having to resort to getting their attention in the most disturbing way is in itself a warning, to say the least, and I personally find it almost criminal that they are not rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty and getting to the bottom of it.

This attitude of keeping it within the family got me thinking of how many other parents approach crisis situations of this kind in the same way. Statistics shout at us from every direction, cautioning us to be aware of the signs of a depressed and suicidal teenager, but these go unnoticed or ignored.

Nine percent of all teenage deaths reported in the country annually are suicides. This is according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag). It also says these suicides make up 6% of the overall number annually. Furthermore, numerous studies have revealed that signs among depressed teenagers are usually distinct and visible enough for parents and other adults within the family to detect.

Still, the numbers rise, the pressure mounts and the only active effort in South Africa that is aimed specifically at tackling the issue of teenage suicides is Sadag’s Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret programme.

From my cousin’s reaction to her daughter’s crisis, and her subsequent behaviour, I gather that many parents out there are either unaware or ignorant of the alarm bells of the depressed teenager.

The issue stems from families not communicating important matters affecting their members, young and old, and taking for granted what problems, if any, the younger members of the family are able to not only detect, but to take on as added pressure in their own lives.

Some parents could be ignorant of the effects of the family’s financial stresses on their teenagers, who may in turn feel somewhat responsible for the situation. Another common scenario is when the younger family members find it hard to deal with the death or illness of a parent or sibling, and find that they cannot talk to the adults in their lives about it and therefore have to find their own way of grieving.

However, there is also a need to look at the situation from a broader point of view, that of the nation, to come up with a national solution to a national problem.

If the numbers mentioned above are anything to go by, we as a country are failing our teenagers in a big way.

Could we possibly start in the home and work our way out?

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