Cape Town – A call to shake up mental health services for learners has mounted after the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) revealed the number of learners who committed suicide at provincial schools had increased five times since 2015.
According to the department, 17 learners allegedly committed suicide last year, 11 in 2019, 13 in 2018, 12 in 2017, four in 2016 and three in 2015.
It was noted no data was available in two districts for 2015 and 2016.
Education standing committee chairperson in the Western Cape Legislature, Lorraine Botha, said the numbers begged a greater concern for the well-being of learners.
Botha called for learner mental health to top this year’s schooling agenda, saying they would commit greater attention to learner mental health issues, particularly due to the added pressures associated with Covid-19, including reduction of contact time and related anxiety on learners’ performance.
The Western Cape Commissioner for Children, Christina Nomdo, also said many children lived in home contexts which were not conducive for learning, having to contend with cramped physical space and stress about domestic violence.
Nomdo said other issues affecting the mental health of learners were not seeing friends and having to contend with enormous workloads.
Education activist Hendrick Makaneta said the levels of depression and suicide among learners were a cause for great concern and government should find a way to dispatch social workers to schools with a view to assist in tracking learners who showed signs of being suicidal.
“We have already lost a number of learners as a result of suicide and the situation if not addressed may increase,” Makaneta said.
He said there was no doubt all members of society had been affected by the aftermath of the lockdown period, “but we call on communities to also be on the lookout for learners who need special care. Teachers alone will not be able to reach out to all the affected learners”.
In November last year, the WCED expressed shock at the news of two Grade 11 girls at La Rochelle High School who allegedly committed suicide two days after the other.
Jade Gouws, 17, died on November 11 at her family home in Drakenstein, while Zara Malherbe, 17, died on November 13.
South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) operations director Cassey Chambers said suicide was a growing concern and there needed to be a continued conversation around teen suicide by equipping those who engaged with teens.
“By giving teachers practical advice and tools on how to identify and talk about teen depression and suicide, they can help save the lives of many students who may be feeling depressed.”
Health activist Dr Sindi van Zyl said teachers played an important role in preventing suicide – they had daily contact with many young people, and were able to notice what learners said, did and wrote.
Van Zyl said some learners felt more comfortable to open up and share their problems with their teachers rather than a parent or friend.
“So equipping teachers on identifying warning signs, how to speak to teens about depression and suicide, and what to do to get help for a learner who is suicidal or at-risk is crucial to preventing suicide,” she said.
Botha urged learners struggling to cope emotionally to reach out to their teachers who could assist in getting them the help they need, or to call the Safe Schools Hotline: 0800 45 46 47.
Sadag urged those not sure what to do or where to go, to please call Sadag’s suicide helpline (24 hours) 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393 for free telephone counselling, crisis intervention, information and referrals nationwide.