The realities of teen loneliness, depression and suicide attempts in South Africa
By Janine Shamos
“There’s no point to this hell called life is there? It never gets better! No-one understands how I feel. They think I’m making it up – just being dramatic and looking for attention. I’ve had enough…”For many teens suffering from depression, loneliness and isolation are part of their daily struggle. “I felt so alone, like no one could ever understand what I was going through. I started asking myself if I was being pathetic and dramatic.”
Teens like Lungi (16) are not alone. Research shows that 1 in 5 teens have considered suicide and almost 17% have formulated a plan to take their lives. The teen years can be emotionally turbulent and stressful. Teens face pressures to succeed, fit in, family and financial stress, loss and trauma, and many struggle with self-esteem issues, self-doubt, and feelings of alienation. “Very concerning is that 60% of youth who have a mental health problem like depression, anxiety or trauma, don’t get the help they need”, says SADAG’s Cassey Chambers.
Gina (19) is no stranger to sadness. “I’ve had bad things happen my whole life, like since I was just a kid. I just kinda dealt with it, you know?” But last year, Gina’s precious St. Bernard, “Lord”, was poisoned. Already fragile (she was repeating matric and not doing well at school, as well as dealing with very shaky family relationships), Gina’s boyfriend left her. “He said I was like jinxed or something. I felt so alone. I really just gave up.” One Friday, during the school assembly, Gina tried to take her life in the matric girls’ bathroom.
Suicide is a desperate attempt to escape unbearable pain and suffering. “Blinded by feelings of self-loathing, hopelessness, and isolation, a severely depressed person can’t see any way of finding relief except through death”, explains psychologist Liane Lurie. “They wish there was an alternative to committing suicide, but they just can’t see one.” This is why SADAG’s teen suicide prevention programme, and National Teen Suicide Prevention Week, is so vital – it gives teens hope for an alternative. Through SADAG’s national school-based programme, “Suicide shouldn’t be a secret”, approximately 700 000 teens have been made aware of the signs, symptoms of depression and suicide, and critically, how to intervene. “We know that many teen suicides could have been prevented if people knew what to look for”, says Chambers who says that SADAG often hears stories of teens who told friends about wanting to die, but were not taken seriously. Lungi spoke to friends about how she was feeling, and even tried to talk to an aunt about the fact that she wanted to kill herself. “No-one really listened to me – they thought I was just looking for attention.” But SADAG has shown that 80% of teen who are suicidal have given some kind of warning, just like Lungi did. Friends are in a key position to pick up on warning signs that a friend or classmate is depressed or suicidal. “It is very important never to take warning signs lightly or promise to keep them secret”, says Lurie.
There are so many youth who suffer in silence, scared of being judged, unsure how to talk about how they are feeling. Often, families are the last to know. TV personality, SadeGilliberti, knows this from first-hand experience. “My depression started early, and when I was depressed my parents didn’t know. When my father found out he was shocked, but he supported me.” Family support is a key factor in teen health. “Family support, good communication, friendships and cultural or religious beliefs are all things that can help a teen deal with depression or stress”, says Lurie.
One of the hardest things to do is speak to a depressed teen – they are moody and emotional – and many people feel uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. There are many myths and misconceptions about how to deal with a depressed or potentially suicidal friend, and too often victims of suicide are blamed and their families and friends are stigmatised. People don’t communicate openly about suicide with the result that suicide is left shrouded in secrecy. “Many youth wonder if it’s a good idea to say anything to a friend if you notice something wrong”, says Chambers. “They worry about their friend becoming angry but it is always better to risk the friendship that to risk the friend. Get help before someone you care about does something that can’t be reversed.”
Help doesn’t always come in the expected way. For one Grade 10 student, life-saving support came from a friend’s sister on WhatsApp. “My brother was worried about a friend of his who was going through a really hard time and was starting to talk very negatively and aggressively”, says Tracy. “He was concerned so I offered to try help.” Shaun didn’t want to talk face-to-face but agreed to chat via the popular social media app. Shaun was feeling very isolated and his family didn’t seem to be taking any notice of his disturbing behaviour – he was cutting his arms, drinking heavily, locking himself in his room, and refusing to go to school. Tracy says she thinks talking to Shaun ‘anonymously’ in a non-threatening way is what he needed to build trust and open up – and ultimately allow him to get the help he needed.
Death from youth suicide is only part of the problem. For every completed suicide, there are an estimated 20 attempted suicides. And far too often, these go unnoticed. Fortunately for Gina, a teacher noticed she hadn’t returned from the bathroom and went to check on her. Ms Smit, a Maths teacher, found Gina unconscious on the floor. After being taken to hospital for treatment, Gina had daily sessions with her Life Orientation teacher at school. “He really helped me to heal.” Gina says that her teacher helped her see life in a different way and encouraged her to speak to another girl at the school who had experienced similar feelings. “That inspired me to know that I wasn’t alone.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, or if you would like to find out more about teen suicide prevention week, please contact SADAG Meryl, Cassey or Naazia on 0800 567 567 or 011 262 6396 or visit them www.sadag.org
Suicide warning signs in teens:
- Change in eating and sleeping habits
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
- Violent or rebellious behaviour, running away
- Drug and alcohol use
- Unusual neglect of personal appearance
- Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork
- Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomach-aches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
- Not tolerating praise or rewards
- Any talk about suicide, dying, or self-harm, such as “I wish I hadn’t been born,” “If I see you again…” and “I’d be better off dead.”
- Seeking access to guns, pills, knives, or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
- Unusual focus on death, dying, or violence. Writing poems or stories about death.
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being trapped (“There’s no way out”). Belief that things will never get better or change.
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame, and self-hatred. Feeling like a burden (“Everyone would be better off without me”).
- Giving away prized possessions.
- Unusual or unexpected visits, calls or texts to family and friends. Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again.