Updated 18 February 2015

Depression and suicide: SA's unseen killers

New statistics reveal startling facts about the mental state of South Africans, with 10% of all non-natural adult deaths due to suicide.


Suicide stats in SA in 2014:

  • 10% of all non-natural deaths in adults and 9.5% in youth are due to suicide.
  • There are +/- 23 suicides a day, virtually 1 every hour.
  • Nearly two-thirds of all suicide victims were aged between 20 and 39 years.
  • Nearly 1 third of recorded suicides in SA are in Gauteng and a 1.5x increase in suicidal deaths in the Transkei over the past five years.
  • There were 4.6 male suicides for every 1 female suicide.
  • 1 in 4 SA teens have attempted suicide.
  • 1 in 3 hospital admissions for suicide involve youth.
  • Less than 1% of mental hospital beds are for children and adolescents.
  • 70% of South Africans who attempted suicide had a mental health disorder.
  • 75% of people will not get the mental health treatment they need.

Following the recent suicides of celebrity comedian Robin Williams, as well as numerous South Africans across the country that have made headlines, it is important to note that at least 10% of all non-natural deaths in adults and 9.5% in youth in South Africa are due to suicide.

Globally, according to the WHO, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds, with 1 person committing suicide every 40 seconds. For every person that dies by suicide, between 10-20 people attempt it.

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According to Prof. Lourens Schlebusch, there are at least 23 suicides a day in South Africa - which may be underestimated due to the stigma involved in suicide. However, data on suicides and other unintentional injury deaths are not systematically tracked by any agency in the country making accurate statistics hard to come by, says SA's largest mental health NGO, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Suicide is a preventable tragedy and with appropriate help, treatment, and support, lives can be saved. Through raising awareness of the magnitude and scope of the problem, increasing psycho-social support and providing free counselling to those in need of help, and implementing grassroots suicide prevention strategies.

Teen Suicide Prevention

Despite the increasingly concerning rate of teen depression and suicide -1 in 4 South African teens have attempted suicide and 1 in 3 hospital admissions for suicide involve youth - most schools don't have counsellors or psycho-social support systems in place. SADAG initiated a school-based suicide prevention programme - Suicide shouldn't be a secret - that goes class by class to empower youth to identify symptoms of depression and warning signs of suicide in themselves, their peers and loved ones; where to go in their communities for assistance, and how to contact SADAG. SADAG also trains teachers because giving power and advice to first-line responders helps them better cope in suicide crises.

Teen suicide - recognise the warning signs

Counselling Containers in Townships

There are many communities in South Africa that lack any access to mental health care. Dieplsoot is an example with an ever-increasing population of at least 200 000. SADAG has established a counselling container in Diepsloot that not only provides free counselling to residents but also outreach programmes with schools, churches, community groups, the police and clinics, and local shopping centres. Container Counselling units can help entire communities and provide easy access, education, support and save costs. A Counselling Container costs R600 000.00 per year to run, which includes providing the counsellors, phones, brochures and materials, talks and support to the members of the community

SADAG's National Suicide Crisis Lines

SADAG has been operating the national suicide prevention crisis lines (0800 567 567) for over 12 years with no funding from the Department of Health-despite the massive costs involved in helping callers on the lines. SADAG says the line needs to be available 24 hours a day but without funding this is simply not possible. "Our lines run 7 days a week from 8 am to 8pm but depression and suicidal thoughts don't stop when our lines close", says Chambers.

Depression and suicide cross all racial, gender and socio-economic boundaries - affecting males and females, married and single, wealthy and poor, young and old. "Many people think that depression is a 'female' issue but statistics show that there are at least 4 male suicides for every one female suicide", says Chambers. More education, resources and awareness by the government is needed. They need to be having with NGO's working in the field.

Suicide is a critical issue in South Africa but it can be reduced and prevented. There is treatment for depression and other mental health issues, help is available. SADAG not only runs a 15-line toll-free counselling and referral centre but also offers community outreach, education and counselling to under-resourced communities, in schools, and in corporations.

In addition, SADAG works with the South African government and medical aid schemes to increase political commitment and funding for mental health care and ensure that sufferers are treated equally. SADAG can be contacted on 0800 21 22 23, 0800 12 13 14, or

Read more:

More South African's diagnosed with depression

Mom's suicide ups child suicide risk

Could blood test predict suicide risk?

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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