Ryan G Edmonds
A new year can often bring an anti-climax, as people realise that the problems of the previous year have not yet magically disappeared, and a whole new array of challenges often await them. This is especially true for many teenagers who, along with the pressures of life and school, can easily find themselves swept away in a stream of stress, anxiety, and depression. Data collected in South Africa shows us that every 24 hours in SA there are 22 suicides and over 220 attempted suicides, and that suicide is currently the fastest-growing cause of death in under 18’s. Who, therefore, is at risk for depression? What is the impact on untreated trauma on adolescents, and can such factors get help and support
There is a growing awareness in South Africa, and globally, surrounding the issue of teen depression. Having “grown up,” parents and other adults often dismiss the troubles of adolescence as trivial or insignificant. What is vital to remember is that, regardless of whether parents have recently divorced, there was a nasty break-up with a partner, or a failed exam, in the mind of the young adult even the most seemingly ‘insignificant’ event could very often be the tipping point for what has already been a build-up of stress and depression over a period of time.
Malcolm Piers* is a 17-year-old living with depression. “No one knew I was depressed. I didn’t even know. All I knew was that I felt empty on the inside; detached. I had no interest in dating or doing the things I once enjoyed. In an attempt to hide the growing ‘darkness’ within me, I would put on a happy face. It wasn’t long before the thought of suicide snuck in. I could have spoken to someone, but who? Who would understand?”
Malcolm’s story is an echo for countless voices of sad, confused, frightened teens that feel alone and don’t know where to seek help. Psychiatrist, Prof. Lourens Schlebusch, international authority on stress and suicidal behaviour, has this to say: “In South Africa there is definitely a lack of access to appropriate psychological care for the vast majority of our youth. It is critical to have a thorough understanding of the risk factors and causes of suicidal behaviour in order to deal with them. It is also essential that school children, and students, be trained to identify, and manage, conflict situations and crises that could result in suicidal behaviour. Stress management is particularly important in this respect.”
Many schools have wonderful facilities available to teens who seek counselling or guidance. Unfortunately the majority of South African schools do not have such resources. “Regarding child and adolescent mental health policy, introducing a multi-level system (with the first tier incorporating schools) is important,” continues Prof. Schlebusch. “Risk factors in families, children and students need to be identified. Educators should be made aware of suicide risk factors, such as dysfunctional family backgrounds, problematic relationships, changes in living conditions and potential psychopathology in the young.” By doing so, teachers and peers will be better informed as to the signs and symptoms of depression, and the necessary steps to take, therefore preventing young people from perhaps one day attempting (or committing) suicide.
A common complaint from the mouths of adolescents with regard to seeking assistance for issues of mental health is a lack of finances – either money is scarce, or teens are afraid to speak to parents about assisting them pay for psychologists etc, as often domestic issues are a part of the problem. The good news is that there are many organizations in South Africa offering assistance to teenagers (and adults) at reduced rates, or free of charge. One such organization is the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). SADAG offers callers free telephonic counselling, and referral, for all mental health issues. Once a counsellor knows the problem, the caller can be referred to the most affordable (very often ‘free-of-charge’) means of assistance. By calling 0800 21 22 23 between 8am and 8 pm seven days a week, they will find a counsellor on duty. Many youth prefer a sms service and can get help on 31393.
One of the most important structures for assisting depressed, or suicidal, teens involves strong support from family and/or friends. If a person is fortunate enough to have strong support systems, it is helpful to speak to those who might be able to offer guidance or advice – even just a willing, caring ear. Many teenagers have a friend who might see the signs of depression (such as a lack of interest in pleasurable activities) and attempt to assist by encouraging open communication. Friends should remember that they aren’t doctors or mental health professionals, and therefore need not panic about having to “fix” a depressed loved-one’s problems. However, simply by being strong support, friends and family give powerful support for a person who, on the inside, feels isolated and alone.
For more information on teens and depression, if you yourself suffer, or know someone who is displaying the warning signs of depression or suicide, please call SADAG (toll-free from a landline) on 0800 21 22 23, join our Facebook page ‘The South African Depression and Anxiety Group’ , or visit the SADAG website www.sadag.org