Striving for academic excellence nearly led to the death of a promising KwaZulu-Natal medicine student two years ago, when he attempted suicide numerous times.

He is one of many South African teenagers who have grappled with the idea of – or attempted – suicide.

Patrick*, not his real name, attempted suicide several times between 2012 and last year. His first attempt was in Grade 11, when he was just 17. He had suffered a slump in his academic results, dropping from being a straight A 90 percent-plus pupil to the 60-70 percents; a drop he says was caused by his drive to do better all the time.

He is now 19 and a student at UKZN’s Nelson Mandela School of Medicine. “I was putting too much pressure on myself… trying too hard to stay at the top,” he said.

He attempted suicide several times in Grade 11 – initially by overdosing on pills. On his last attempt he tried to hang himself in the bedroom at his Malvern home.

He was confronted by his parents and has been on medication ever since – and believes he will never go down that dark road again.

According to Professor Lourens Schlebusch, a behaviour medicine professor at the UKZN medicine school, the most common methods are hanging, poison, gassing, cutting, overdosing and shooting.

The most common causes of suicide, Schlebusch said, were relationship problems, family, sexual abuse, violence, bullying, substance abuse and a family history of suicide or depression.

Female teenagers attempted suicide more often than their male counterparts, with one teenage male attempting suicide for every three attempts by girls.

But teenagers like Patrick can get help.

“With the help of the Survivors Of Our Loved Ones of Suicide (Solos) group, I will never attempt to take my own life again. I can call my counsellor at any time of the day. They listen and are encouraging when you need to blow off steam,” he said.

When Patrick first relapsed in 2012 as he struggled with his grades, he immediately sort the help of the Solos group.

He is still on medication and regularly sees psychiatrists and counsellors at Solos group sessions, and has a close relationship with his group leader.

 

As part of his healing process, he has been encouraged not to isolate himself from other teens, to keep busy, to play sports and engage with his parents.

Patrick’s new drug is music and dancing, when he isn’t attending lectures with fellow students.

Lori Lesna Barausse, a South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and Solos co-ordinator in Durban, said emphasising awareness was the most important tool for prevention.

“If we understand and become aware of the signs of suicidal feelings in family or friends we can take action and possibly prevent suicide altogether.

“Teenagers especially, need to belong, to feel connected, and to be involved in family life, school and community. All this makes them feel that they are part of the bigger picture,” she said.

Barausse said teenagers who felt they did not belong within a certain group – whether in the school environment or around where they live – suffered from a lack of involvement and said this was dangerous as there were often “irreversible implications in these young lives”.

Barausse said if KZN schools were open to Sadag education initiative, it would of great benefit to the cause. “I strongly believe that suicide can be prevented if we as a community become more aware of the problems, help each other in time of need and talk about it openly.

“We need to listen more! This is not just one person’s problem, this is a community problem and we all need to participate in a meaningful way to help,” she said.

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SUICIDES BY THE NUMBERS

0 - funding Sadag receives from the Department of Health.

1 - percent of mental hospital beds assigned to children.

3 – for every three suicide attempts by women, there is one attempt by a man.

7 – the youngest age of a fatal suicide in SA.

9.5 percent of non-natural deaths are due to suicides.

10 – suicide is the leading killer for 10- to 19-year-olds.

16.8 percent of teens planned to commit suicide.

20.7 percent of teens considered attempting suicide.

23.6 percent of teens are sad or have hopeless feelings.

28.6 percent – the Free State province has the highest prevalence of pupils with sad or hopeless feelings.

40 percent of fatal suicides occur over the weekend.

60 percent of youth with a mental health disorder do not get treated.

80 percent of teens show a warning sign before attempting suicide.

367 – the number of schools that have opened their doors to Sadag over the past five years.