Suicide Amongst Young People in South Africa

Wednesday, 8 October, 2008 - 17:13

The occurrence of suicide amongst teenagers and young adults is rising dramatically. It is the second largest cause of death amongst teenagers.

The occurrence of suicide amongst teenagers and young adults is rising dramatically. It is the second largest cause of death amongst teenagers. Teenagers are in the vulnerable in-between stage where they are no longer young and dependant on their parents for everything; yet they have not reached maturity either. They develop physically, socially and emotionally at a fast pace and we expect them to take responsibility for their own actions. They are, after all, in the final stages of development and will soon have to make significant decisions about their type of friends, education and career soon.

Many teenagers’ advanced technological knowledge and ability creates the impression of maturity. However, the pre-occupation with technology does have drawbacks as it does not always leave space for the development and exercise of other life skills. Teenagers could be technologically advanced and display a lot of knowledge obtained from the internet, but a lack of communication skills could leave them lonely and isolated.

Many teenagers’ advanced technological knowledge and ability creates the impression of maturity. However, the pre-occupation with technology does have drawbacks as it does not always leave space for the development and exercise of other life skills. Teenagers could be technologically advanced and display a lot of knowledge obtained from the internet, but a lack of communication skills could leave them lonely and isolated.

Adding to the pressure teenagers experience, South Africans are confronted with violence and destruction. Violence has become a major part of our lives and appears to be a frequently used method of problem solving. It is to be expected that this overwhelming violent and destructive atmosphere will especially influence vulnerable young people. Some youth people might even direct some of this destructive behaviour towards themselves.

In South Africa as in the rest of the world, suicide amongst primary school children does not occur often. However, the occurrence of suicide amongst teenagers and young adults is dramatically increasing. The number of adult men who commit suicide is three times higher than that of adult women. This might be a result of the different psycho-pathology found in men and women or it might have something to do with the effectiveness of the method used to commit suicide. Firearms are used more by men and are more fatal than drinking pills, a method preferred by women (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group, 2008). A different scenario is evident amongst young people as Schlebusch (2005:58) found that more female than male youth seem to commit suicide.

Anger and aggression are feelings regularly found in youth attempting to commit suicide. Self -destruction amongst youth can be direct and result in suicide or it can be indirect and result in high-risk behaviour such as substance abuse, unprotected sex or generally dangerous activities (Schlebusch, 2005:8). For example there have been recent newspaper reports about young people choking themselves in order to create a more intense orgasm.

Several risk factors are associated with suicide among young people including the diagnoses of psychiatric disorders. Depressive disorders seem to have a significant impact on suicide figures amongst youth, sometimes in combination with substance abuse, anxieties or other psychiatric disorders. Media coverage of suicides by young people might lead to suicide clusters where several youth commit suicide in a pact or are following each other’s examples. It is commonly believed that youth from difficult or dysfunctional backgrounds are more vulnerable and more prone to commit suicide. This can be associated with poor problem-solving skills. Common factors include increased impulsiveness, emotional instability and lack of reasoning and decision-making skills.

The symptoms of teenage depression are very different from the symptoms of adult depression. Where adults tend to present with sadness and melancholy, teenagers present with irritability, low frustration thresholds or angry outbursts. Teenagers might complain about unfounded medical symptoms such as head and stomach aches. They could complain of feeling worthless or might not be able to cope with criticism or feedback regarding their behaviour. Young people with depression may withdraw themselves from their parents or regular friends but tend to keep up at least some relationships although sometimes with a different crowd they socialised with before.

Another risk factor in South Africa appears to be matric exams. Stress levels before writing matric are very high and this appears to impact on suicide attempts by youth. Other stressful events associated with teen suicide are a disciplinary crisis or social failure such as rejection by friends, an unsuccessful intimate relationship or job failure. Often suicidal teens have a close family member or friend who committed suicide.

It is concerning that young females reported that they discussed suicide but were not taken seriously. Young females who attempted suicide unsuccessfully also reported that they had spoken about it to someone before they attempted to take their own life. In some communities, there is a perception that people who threaten to commit suicide are not serious about it.  Young people talking or joking about suicide should always be taken seriously.

Similarly it might be necessary to attend to teenagers who romanticise death or become involved in reckless practices or behaviours. Teenagers who start to give away their most prized possessions, who are pre-occupied with saying goodbye as if it was for good, or young people seeking out potentially dangerous weapons and addictive substances may need our help desperately.

In order to understand their own development, young people need psycho-education to understand the process, facts, myths and feelings accompanying this development. They need support to survive, heal and prosper after being raised in dysfunctional families or growing up without an adult parental structure. Youth need life skills to cope in an angry and violent society. While schools, churches and NGOs offer programmes to support young people, the fact that suicide amongst youth is not decreasing despite our efforts, clearly shows that we need to intensify our attempts to reach youth with support and life skills interventions.

At Lifeline Ekurhuleni, our emotional wellness programmes include topics such as personal growth (directed on personality development) anger and conflict management, communication, stress and aggression coping skills, trauma counseling, support to child-headed-households and peer-education regarding HIV/AIDS related issues. All these programmess aim to improve emotional resilience by promoting coping and social skills of our youth.

- Alda Smit is a clinical specialist at Lifeline Ekurhuleni.

References:

Schlebusch, L. S. 2005. Suicidal Behaviour in South Africa. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Helpguide, org. 2007.
Internet access on 18/9/2008.
http://www.Helpguide.org 
 
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group. 2008.
Internet access on 18-9-2008.
http://www.sadag.co.za/index.php/links

Wikipedia, 2008.
Internet access on 19-9-2008.
http://www.wikipedia.com

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