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18 February 2011

How to curb the increase in teen suicides

More South African teenagers are committing suicide, and the average age of those taking their own lives is decreasing. We focus on this tragic phenomenon, and how to prevent it.

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Suicide among children and adolescents in South Africa is on the increase and children as young as 10 years old have committed suicide.

This is according to statistics released by Prof Lourens Schlebusch of the Department of Behavioural Medicine at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, University of Natal.

Schlebusch conducted research on suicide over a period of 25 years. Until recently, reliable statistics have been unavailable. For the first time there is a more accurate picture of the prevalence of suicide in South Africa.

According to Schlebusch, approximately six to eight thousand people commit suicide in South Africa every year, making suicide the third greatest cause of unnatural death in the country after homicide and unintentional causes. On average 9% of deaths in young people, especially black youth, in South Africa are due to suicide. This is almost as high as adult suicide rates. Approximately one third of all patients admitted to hospital after attempted suicide, are children or teens.

The finding that younger and younger people are committing suicide raises concern. "Ten years ago, the elderly were most at risk of committing suicide. Nowadays, younger people are committing or attempting suicide," says Schlebusch.

Fatal suicides are only one part of the picture. For every one fatal suicide, there are 20 suicide attempts. The Durban Parasuicide Study conducted by Schlebusch and his team of researchers revealed that children and adolescents (aged 10 to 19 years) are the second most at-risk age group for non-fatal suicides after young adults.

Up to one third of all attempted suicides seen in hospitals involve children and adolescents.

According to two surveys as many as 4% (in 2001) to 24% (2003) of school children have suicidal ideation and up to 7.8% of these children have attempted suicide.

Why do children and adolescents commit suicide?
According to Schlebusch, the greatest precipitators in children and adolescents are:

  • academic-related problems, such as poor school performance or academic failure
  • incest
  • stress
  • psychological disorders, especially depression
  • interpersonal problems
  • family problems

Certain factors increase the risk that a child or adolescent would attempt or commit suicide. These include:

  • previous suicide attempts
  • substance abuse (especially alcohol abuse) and other psychological disorders
  • exposure to family violence
  • a family member's suicidal behaviour
  • child abuse
  • school-related problems
  • access to firearms

Who are most at risk?
Some teens are more at risk than others:

  • Suicide in patients with life-threatening diseases is significant. HIV/Aids patients have a 36 times higher suicide risk as a group than the risk found in the normal population.
  • Black youths are at particular risk. Schlebusch attributes this to significant demands that are made on them educationally and socio-economically and because of high unemployment rates and expectations not being met.

Methods used in fatal suicide
According to Schlebusch, hanging is the most frequently used method (36.2%), followed by shooting (35%) and poisoning (9.8%) across all age groups.

Methods employed in non-fatal suicides among children and adolescents were mostly overdose of painkillers, benzodiazepines and antidepressants, or self-poisoning.

Unfortunately, many people continue to attempt suicide. They adopt more severe and lethal methods in subsequent attempt(s) until the attempt is successful or they have achieved the desired response from significant others on whom the suicidal behaviour is supposed to impact.

How to prevent teen suicides
Some suicides and suicide attempts can be prevented if family or friends recognise the early warning signs and seek professional help for the teen and if the underlying problems can be addressed.

Look out for the following signs of depression in teens:

  • Sad, anxious or 'empty' mood
  • Deteriorating school performance
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in social and sports activities
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Changes in weight or appetite

Three steps parents can take if they suspect suicidal behaviour:

  • Seek professional help (medical or mental health professional)
  • Offer support (listen, avoid undue criticism, remain connected)
  • Become informed (library, local support group, internet)

“By facing this problem full on, we, as a society, can help turn fear, ignorance, denial and myth into a healing process. Through understanding the pressures acting on our children and by helping them to deal with these serious issues, we can help turn their fear and despair and loneliness into courage, hope and power. We owe it to our children for without them there will not be a future to which to look forward," says Zane Wilson, founder of SADAG. - (Ilse Pauw, Health24)

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