National preventative programmes, strategies and priorities have been developed in many other countries but South Africa is falling short, says Professor Lourens Schlebusch, an international expert on suicide and Emeritus professor of Behavioural Medicine at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“Traditionally, suicide rates have shown a positive relationship with age, in that they tended to increase in older people (some six to eight times higher than in younger people)," he said.
"However, recent statistics show that, on a global spectrum, more younger people die from suicide than older people.
"The global incidence of suicide in under 15-year-olds has, in fact, more than doubled since 1960 in both males and females.”
The 2008 National Youth at Risk Survey, which focused on children and adolescents between grades 8 and 11, found that one in four (24.7%) reported feeling sad or hopeless, and just under 18% had made at least one suicide attempt.
Only 37.2% of the youth who reported feelings of sadness had sought treatment from a counsellor or doctor.
Worldwide, suicide is listed as the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year- olds, the World Health Organisation found.
Today is World Health Day and it marks the anniversary of the founding of the organisation.
This year the theme selected by the WHO is "Depression: Let’s Talk".
The SA Federation for Mental Health lamented that depression often remained largely under-reported by teens.
Studies found that it often took several years before depressed adolescents and children received appropriate treatment.
“This treatment gap is in part due to stigma and fear of discrimination," SAFMH spokesperson Marthé Viljoen said.
"On World Health Day SAFMH calls on all South Africans to begin talking openly about depression, and to thereby combat the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental health.
“Young people struggling with feelings of depression, or any other mental health problems, are encouraged to seek professional help so that they can access the correct forms of treatment.”
Globally it is estimated that 300 million people of all ages experience depression, and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
Schlebusch said that globally, about one death by suicide occurred every 40 seconds and one attempt was made every one to three seconds.
“By 2020, theseare expected to increase worldwide to one death every 20 seconds and one suicidal attempt made every one to two seconds.
"Such figures indicate that, on average, more people globally die annually from suicide than they do during war.”
Schlebusch said suicidal behaviour in young people could range from lethal attempts with high intent to die (fatal suicidal behaviour) to non-lethal attempts (non-fatal suicidal behaviour) with low or no intent to die.
He said that in SA, about 9.5% of non-natural deaths in young people are because of suicides.
For every suicide, there are 10 to 20 more non-fatal suicidal behaviours a year.
“In many cases of suicide, threats or non-fatal suicidal behaviour, parents and other adults did not always take the behaviour seriously for various reasons,” he said.
“They often considered it as mere gestures or threats to manipulate, or because they wanted to avoid publicity and social embarrassment.
"This can only make the situation worse and increase the number of fatal suicidal behaviours.
"Given the research findings, the severity of the problem in young people in South Africa should not be underestimated.”
To prevent suicidal behaviour and promote mental health, Schlebusch said a national programme for suicide prevention should provide a strategic framework for action at all levels.
These should be at national, provincial, regional and local levels.
Their goals should include:
Reducing suicide deaths and non-fatal suicidal behaviour.
Reducing risk factors and promoting protective factors.
Promoting early detection of new trends and a reversal of emerging problem areas.
Promoting public awareness of suicidal behaviour, its causes and possibilities for prevention.
Increasing support to individuals, families and communities affected by suicidal behaviour.