‘We never saw this coming’

By Theresa Taylor Time of article published Sep 11, 2014

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Johannesburg - You are doing really well. A high achiever. Making money and going from strength to strength. You are a shooting star, until you suddenly, without any apparent warnings, implode.

“We never saw this coming.”

It’s the caught-off-guard mantra from friends and family that accompanies many suicides, and in a number of cases it genuinely can be incredibly difficult to predict that a person who is successful will take their own life.

According to statistics put out by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, 30 percent of South Africans who attempt suicide don’t have a known mental health disorder.

“A suicide attempt can also emerge out of an individual where one would have considered them happy or okay or functional… We should never take it for granted that one should present with marked change,” said Zamo Mbele, clinical psychologist at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.

Mbele said individuals in this category might attempt suicide because of feeling increased pressure on them due to their success, or might be so unpractised at dealing with failure that when one small thing goes wrong, they need a way out from the perceived shame of failing.

Teenagers could be particularly vulnerable to impulsive suicide attempts, Mbele said.

An apparently small thing such as failing a test or a break-up could set a suicide attempt in motion.

“Up until the moment (they go ahead with it), there is no contemplation or planning,” he said.

“There is very little that can be done to anticipate the actual suicide outside of having an open conversation with a teen to almost pre-empt it.”

However, counselling psychologist Tamara Zanella said she thought it would be rare that a person would attempt suicide without some history of trauma or illness, even in their distant past.

The majority of suicide attempts do present in people who have a history of mental illness.

For example, bipolar sufferers were highly vulnerable to suicide and what is known as suicidal ideation, thoughts, fantasies and plans about committing suicide.

Also, 40 to 60 percent of people with bipolar, even bipolar that was medicated and technically under control, would consider or attempt suicide.

Mbele said South Africa differed from international trends because globally it was generally people who had not sought help for their mental illness who were the most vulnerable to suicide, but in our country, even those who had tried to get help could still end up killing themselves.

“The system frustrates them and they end up committing suicide,” he said.

“It’s a response of: ‘I’ve tried to seek help and I just could not get it’.”

Mbele said trying and failing to get help would leave mental-illness sufferers more desperate than before.

Zanella said that in South Africa, substance abuse was a big factor in suicide attempts.

She said young people were also more vulnerable here than in other countries because of a lack of opportunities.

“It’s so difficult at the moment for school-leavers. They can’t get employment. There is no sense of purpose,” she cautioned.

The Star

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