Suicide stats ‘alarming’ Constitutes third largest cause of unnatural deaths in SA

Professor Lourens Schlebusch,Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Medicine at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Professor Lourens Schlebusch,Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Medicine at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Published Sep 6, 2011



SOUTH African suicide statistics in general are alarming. This was the conclusion of Professor Lourens Schlebusch, an expert on stress and suicide, after conducting research on suicide in the country.

Schlebusch says that about 6 000 to 8 000 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.

He says that about one third of all patients admitted to hospital after attempted suicide are children or teenagers.

And he says that fatal suicides are only part of the story: for every fatal suicide there are at least 20 attempted suicides.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about one million people worldwide die from suicide every year and predictions are that by 2020, this figure is likely to escalate to approximately 1.53 million people per annum.

According to Schlebusch, recent research in the country shows that on average, suicide accounts for 9.5 percent of non-natural deaths in young people and 11 percent in adults. 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,” said Schlebusch.

There has been a shift in suicidal behaviour from the elderly to younger people in South Africa.

The average age for suicide is around 35 and almost one third of all non-fatal suicidal behaviours involve adolescents. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s (Sadag) school-based teenage suicide prevention programme “Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret” – funded by Lotto – aims to reduce the high incidence of teenage suicide in South Africa.

“Teen suicide is a preventable tragedy and only through destigmatisation and education, through teaching peers and teachers to recognise warning signs and intervene, can we save lives,” said Sadag’s Cassey Chambers.

According to Schlebusch’s research, suicide methods differ across socio-demographic groups.

Hanging accounts for between 34 percent and 43 percent of suicides, firearms for between 29 percent and 35 percent, ingestion of poison for between 9 percent and 14 percent, gassing for between 6 percent and 7 percent, burning for between 2 percent and 4 percent, and jumping from a height for between 2 percent and 4 percent.

Regarding non-fatal suicidal behaviour, the overall method of choice in 90 percent of cases is overdose: over-the-counter analgesics and prescription medications are commonly used, along with household utility products such as paraffin, pesticides and various poisons.

Suicide is generally thought to be mainly a female issue but, according to Sadag and Schlebusch, it is actually higher among males than females. “We are getting more and more calls from men who are depressed and stressed, often because of financial issues,” said Chambers.

Men often show their stress by working too hard, drinking and engaging in extra-marital affairs – they display aggression rather than depression. Five times more men commit suicide than women.

Sadag also runs the country’s only toll-free suicide crisis line – 0800 567 567 – open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm.

There is often a lack of awareness of the prevalence of suicidal behaviour. To raise awareness surrounding this issue, Sadag observes World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10.

As part of the day, the Durban North Crisis Team (supported by Sadag and the WHO) will be holding their fourth annual Suicide Remembrance Walk in Umhlanga.

The “Into the Light Walk” focuses public attention on understanding suicide, highlighting effective prevention activities and walking in memory of those lost to suicide.

The walk will take place at the CJ Saunders Park in Umhlanga on September 11 at 8.30am.

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