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Suicidal Teens

Teen suicide is a devastating and serious problem around the world. Meaningful Minds Psychologist, Melissa Cilliers discusses the topic and provides a list of helpful warning signs and tips on what to do if you or someone you know is suicidal. This article applies to adults and teens alike.

According to WHO, a suicide occurs every 40 seconds and an attempt is made every 3 seconds. In South Africa, 9.5% of deaths in teens are as a result of suicide. To begin with, it’s hard to think of these statistics occurring in human beings between the ages of 15 and 29. Are people this age supposed to be having thoughts associated with death?

Perhaps you are a parent who is currently facing the stress of a teenager who has or is thinking of committing suicide? How do we begin to know how to cope with something this devastating and stressful? Let’s face it, we have all been through the teenage years and most of us can say that this period of development is tough and riddled with awkward and tumultuous feelings. However, for some teens, this period of development may potentially be their last and the stressors that they may be experiencing are so overwhelming that their need to escape becomes a fixation.

University of Cape Town researchers specifically looked at what it means to be suicidal:

Although most young people think about death to some degree, suicidal thinking usually occurs within a very particular context. When emotional pain, feelings of hopelessness or a relative inability to know how to cope with life circumstances becomes too much to bear, individuals may find themselves consciously considering the possibility of ending their life. Suicidal thoughts can range from thoughts of being ‘better off dead’ to actively thinking about and planning how one might kill oneself. People who feel this way are characteristically feeling unable to find another means of coping with their life situation and are thus expressing a desperate need to bring an end to their difficulties.

The suicide rate for children aged 10-14 years old has more than doubled over the last fifteen years. The questions on most people’s minds are: why are teens experiencing these stressors as so overwhelming and how can death be the best option for them? Before we look at how we can answer these questions or how we can help someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, let’s look at the facts.

According to extensive research done is South Africa, the following is true for teens:

  • One third of hospital admissions in SA involved teenagers who have attempted/ committed suicide.

  • South African research found that 23.6% of teens are struggling with feelings of hopelessness. and sadness

  • Teens are likely to be more impulsive when dealing with suicidal thought or behaviours.

  • Research noted that more female teens commit suicide than males.

  • Less than 1% of mental hospital beds in South Africa are for teens.

  • More than half of teens commit suicide by hanging.

  • The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) research indicated that 24% of teens have thought about committing suicide.

  • The National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that 21.4% of teens have made one or more suicide attempts.

Having had some experience dealing with teenagers who have attempted suicides, in most cases there is evidence of regret and an obvious cry for help. Most people’s opinion of suicide is that it is a selfish and impulsive decision and very little empathy is felt for the individual. However, if we pause for a second, and resist the urge to judge, we may see an emotionally troubled person who is overwhelmed by heavy, difficult and confusing feelings who is in need of support (not attention, support). In most cases, if a teenager has decided that escaping life through suicide is their only option, chances are, they feel alone and do not feel that they have a safe place or person to go to. Despite the fact that in most cases, support is often offered, many teenagers exist in their own turmoil for many months before finding a solution that seems logical to them. So how can parents and/or guardians protect and assist a child, adolescent or young adult experiencing these difficult feelings?

SADAG has highlighted some important warning signs and risk factors if you are concerned about a teenager (or anyone) harming themselves:

  • If a teenager has tried suicide before;

  • If there is a history of depression and/or suicide in the family;

  • If the adolescent uses alcohol or drugs

  • They have been sexually or physically abused

  • They have a chronic illness;

  • They have a learning disability or a mental or physical disability

  • There are family fights or a poor parent/child relationship;

  • There has been a recent loss, family or relationship break-up, or death;

  • There has been a disruption in their life like a change in friends, surroundings, or activities; and

  • They have been exposed to violence

So, if you have become aware that someone is a danger to themselves, what is the next step? It is important to approach the person sensitively and non-judgmentally. Chances are you are already dealing with someone who is sensitive to rejection, most likely has feelings of abandonment, and has difficulty trusting others. Providing such individuals with a safe space is probably the most important step in the process of helping someone. Assessing the individuals risk is also important, deciphering to what extent their thoughts have progressed and if the need for admission is required. It is also equally important to remember that you are dealing with a human being who is capable of being part of the decision making when deciding on a safety plan or treatment plan. Allow them the sense of autonomy to make decisions regarding their well being. It can be very traumatic when someone is admitted against their will. While I can understand the panic that may emerge in parents who are facing a suicidal teen, the approach should result in the teen succumbing to the support not forcing them to withdraw. Convincing a teenager to seek the help of a professional should be your end goal.

If you are a parent of a teenager who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important to remember that you also need support during the process and should not feel resistant to finding support structures for yourself. If you or a family member need help please contact us at Meaningful Minds and speak to one of our psychologists. Alternatively if you need someone to talk to immediately you can contact:

Here is a list of professional services you or your teen may benefit from:

South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 0800 567 567

Lifeline South Africa 0861 322 322

Akeso Crisis line 0861 435 787

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