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Johannesburg - Almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year are the result of suicide, the Psychiatry Management Group (PsychMG) said on Tuesday. 

According to PsychMG, about 20 percent of high school learners have tried to take their own lives.

With teenagers and young adults the focus of World Mental Health Day on October 10, PsychMG chairperson, Dr Sebolelo Seape, said the prevention of teen suicides starts with a better understanding of the symptoms of depression.

“Most people with depression are not suicidal, but most suicidal people are depressed,” Seape said stressing the importance of knowing the symptoms of depression.

PsychMG said many of these tragedies could be averted by paying attention to warning signals and risk factors, building emotional resilience, and taking suicide threats seriously.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression was globally the third highest disease burden amongst adolescents, and suicide the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds, while the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) states that nine percent of teenage deaths in the country were due to suicide.

The PsychMG said the 2011 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) found that a quarter of grade 8-11 learners across all South Africa’s provinces had felt so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their usual daily activities for two weeks or more. More than one in six had either thought about suicide, made plans to commit suicide, or attempted it at least once in the past six months.

“This suggests a large proportion of teenagers are suffering from mental and emotional health problems. The youth are the future of our country and we need to act to prevent the devastating consequences of them losing their hope for the future,” Seape said.

The organisation said depression and other mental health disorders had a serious impact on the individual’s ability to function and perform their normal activities, Seape said, while the WHO notes growing evidence that promoting and protecting adolescent health brings long-term benefits to economies and society.

“Healthy young adults are able to make greater contributions to the workforce, their families and communities, and society as a whole,” the organisation said.

Seape said the causes of depression and related mental illnesses in teenagers and young adults were multi-faceted

“There is the stressful nature of the teenage years – for some teenagers, the normal developmental changes of these years, such as bodily changes, new patterns of thoughts and feelings, can be unsettling and overwhelming. There are social changes too, like changing schools, the pressure of final exams, the prospect of leaving home to start tertiary studies or a job; as well as other stress factors such as family issues, changes in their friend networks, and the pressure to succeed," she said.

“Problems appear too big, too difficult or embarrassing to overcome, and suicide may look like the only option.”

Seape said warning signs and symptoms could include changes in eating and sleeping habits, loss of interest in usual activities, neglect of personal appearance or hygiene, withdrawal from friends and family, or running away from home.

Alcohol and substance abuse, unnecessary risk-taking behaviour, obsession with death and dying, and numerous physical complaints linked to emotional distress, are also signals, she said, along with feelings of boredom, agitation, nervousness, sadness, loneliness or hopelessness.

“Some teenagers may actually pass verbal hints by talking about death and dying directly or indirectly, they may talk about wanting to die and begin to dispose of much-loved possessions, and they may write a suicide note. All threats of suicide must be taken seriously,” Seape warned.

Seape said existing mental illness or substance abuse, and a family history of mental illness, suicide, substance abuse or violence, heightened the risk of suicide, and “a previous attempt is the strongest predictor of another suicide attempt”.

She said suicides rarely happen without warning, and learning and recognising these signals was the most effective way to prevent suicide.

The organisation said parents, teachers and friends concerned about a teenager at risk of suicide should be willing to listen without judgement, provide reassurance that they care, and to ask questions about suicidal thoughts.

“Don’t try to argue them out of suicide and avoid guilt-inducing statements like ‘suicide will hurt your family’. Rather let them know that you care and want to understand, that they are not alone, and that problems and suicidal feelings are temporary – that depression can be treated and problems can be solved,” Seape said.

“Once the condition has been identified, continue to offer support and take an active role, for example by ensuring that they take prescribed medication or attend scheduled counselling sessions."

Seape also pointed to the role of parents and educators in building children’s mental and emotional resilience – the ability to cope with everyday challenges and to overcome disappointments and failures as a normal part of life.

African News Agency (ANA)