When statistics tell us that 5% of learners think about suicide and 8% of them actually follow through and commit suicide, one has to wonder what the contributing factors are. Suicide – taking one’s own life – is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, one that in all likelihood has its roots in depression and anxiety. At the SADAG (South African Depression & Anxiety) Press Day held on 9 October 2019 in Sandton to highlight World Mental Health Day, I was one of a number of guest speakers presenting to a packed audience of journalists. Our job was to provide insight into depression, anxiety and suicide and to advise on responsible reporting.
Worldwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 – 29 year olds, accordingly to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Close to 800 000 people die by suicide every year that equates to one death every 40 seconds. 70% of suicides occur in low and middle-income countries, mostly by using pesticides such at rat poison (which is cheap), hanging and firearms. There are more deaths by suicide that from war and homicide put together.
Symptoms To Look Out For In Teen Suicide
- Withdrawal from sport and extracurricular activities
- Spending more time alone and not socialising
- Expression of feelings of helplessness and helplessness
- Deteriorating body posture, slumped shoulders etc
- Believe that there is no solution to their problems
- Don’t get much enjoyment from anything
Suicides are preventable
The WHO details the following as effective preventive measures:
- Restricting access to means (eg, pesticides, guns etc)
- Responsible media reporting
- Introducing alcohol policies
- School-based interventions
- Training of health works in early identification and treatment
- Follow-up care and community support (75% of suicides give warning beforehand of their intentions)
Many of the above are sorely lacking in South Africa. We have a long way to go.
Suicide Reduction Goals
According to the WHO the following goals have been set to reduce suicide rates worldwide:
- By 10% in the WHO Mental Health Action Plan 2013 – 2020
- By 1/3 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030
This will require more countries to develop and adopt a national suicide prevention strategy. Most countries currently don’t have one. They need a multi-sectoral approach between government, media and civil society.
Depression, Anxiety And Suicide: Contributing Factors In Children And Teens
The above UN and WHO goals are laudable and the preventive measures important, however, they do not address some of the key drivers that contribute to exacerbating depression and anxiety in teens that I highlighted in my presentation at the SADAG Press Day, including technology, social media and parents themselves. Note: depression, anxiety and suicide are complex issues and this is far from an exhaustive list, or psychological advice. It does, however, shine a light on a few contributing factors from my perspective as an observer and commentator on parenting, child development and human behaviour.
- Screens can educate and entertain our children. The wide array of choice will keep them from boredom but also trap them in a very small world that lacks face-to-face, multi-sensory interaction with others that they desperately need for feedback and feelings of real connection.
- Unlimited use of screens can steal much need sleep from teens which also puts them at greater risk for anxiety and depression.
- Leading a more sedentary life, tweens and teens move less, pumping less oxygen and endorphins (happiness hormones) around the brain and the body.
- TV programmes such as 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria can provide really interesting teachable moments if parents watch them before their children and then watch them together. They provide a bridge for conversation.
- 24-hour news reporting keeps feeding us and our kids negative information and they are growing up believing that the world is more bad than good. It’s a scary place. This can lead to feelings of helplessness. Limit exposure to constant news updates.
- Greta Thurnberg’s recent ‘takeover’ at the UN is an example of highlighting adult responsibilities to the planet and each other, however her claims of believing she and her generation have no future could also exacerbate feelings of hopelessness among children unless parents and teachers keep it in perspective.
- Leads to teens comparing themselves to others on social media – how do they measure up, how do they compare? This can result in feelings of inadequacy.
- Perfectionism is a logical offshoot of social media comparison. Kids strive to post the perfect picture with the perfect smile and the perfect outfit. They do crazy things to get that perfect shot or pretend that they have a perfect life.
- Marketers are screaming out messages to teens, across all platforms, that they can help them be more this and that. The underlying message is you are not good enough or you could be better if …. you bought this, owned that, or used this. We need to bring up awake and discerning children who can work this out.’
- ‘How to’ videos abound online about how to commit suicide etc. It’s easy.
- Parental fear and anxiety about their children and their future is at an all time high.
- It is infectious and spills over into the children making them feel unsafe.
- It can lead to parental over-protection, with parents trying to smooth the path for their children by removing obstacles or solving their problems for them. This results in rescuing children rather than empowering them with skills to solve their oven problems or to manage their own feelings of anxiety – many of which are totally normal and age-appropriate. A degree of anxiety is necessary to get things done and to keep us aware and safe.
- Parental over-protection may lead to children to a state of ‘learned helplessness’ where they don’t have the skills that lead to emotional resilience.
- This enables them to become victims of a hostile world in which they believe they have no control and no coping skills.
- Some children fear that they are not perfect enough for their parents who put pressure on them to over-achieve at school in order to ensure that they get into the right university etc. Financial pressure can lead parents to put unusual expectations on their children that may not be appropriate.
- What a child fears most is if they disappoint their parents they may experience rejection and withdrawal of love. So, they strive by doing, not by being and it can very quickly get out of balance as they seek their parents’ attention and approval.
- Children also react to emotionally absent parents which can result in negative attention seeking behaviour, including suicide.
- Parental absence, often due to work and financial issues, opens the door to parental guilt and allows children to manipulate their parents by hitting the guilt button.
- Feelings of powerlessness and not being good enough can lead to the development of depression and anxiety in children, which can show up as:
- Eating disorders
- Social isolation
- Substance abuse
- Suicide and more
The Vicious Depression Cycle Needs To Be Diffused Quickly And Early
A vicious cycle emerges which becomes ever more difficult to get out of if left to continue. Many parents are unaware that they may have started this cycle, or fueled in the first place. There is a battle cry to fix the children when, in fact, many parents need to resolve their own fear and anxiety issues so that they do not infect their children or exacerbate the anxiety and depression in their kids. Life is unpredictable and is going to be full of ups and downs. We cannot protect our children from it all but we can empower them to deal with it from a young age.
- The goal is to give our children the gift of competence to handle life as it is, not as we would like it to be.
- If they feel emotionally competent to handle life this will lead to feelings of satisfaction and meaning.
- There is joy in life if they can own the results of THEIR OWN efforts and if they can live their lives not comparing themselves to pictures of perfection of others on social media, fearing they don’t stack up and fearing failure and rejection by parents or peers.
- They need the gift of perspective.
- Social media can create a fear-mongering frenzy about events in the news, as can 24-hour news reporting.
- Bad news never lets up and our children can be forgiven for believing that they live in a hostile world in which something terrible is likely to happen to them.
- They need to understand that technology doesn’t have a pulse and cannot love them back. Tech is good for entertainment, education and a whole lot more, however:
- It is being over-used to distract them from their pain.
- It is not a human being. Only human beings can offer real connection and can fill the emotional void within.
- We need to give our kids a dose of reality of real life.
- Instead, we marinade them in expectations of life created by movies and TV which only highlight the exciting parts, the events.
- Most lives and most jobs are filled largely by routine processes, in between a few highlights, that create stability and efficiency.
- This routine is what keeps us sane, stable and tethered, and it requires commitment, responsibility and effort.
If we can help and guide our children to learn how to connect their own investment of effort with feelings of competence, practically and emotionally from a young age, they are more likely to feel powerful in their own right. Feelings of anxiety and depression logically diminish as they sense feelings of internal control over their inner and outer worlds. Does this make sense?
The South African Depression And Anxiety Group
SADAG operates the only suicide helpline in the country. It’s open 24/7 and has 140 volunteer telephone counsellors who operate 22 helplines. Here are some statistics:
- It costs over R110 000 per month to keep it operational
- Relies on donations
- SADAG receives over 600 calls a day
- Between January and September this year:
- 179 000 calls were received
- Over 46 545 of these calls were from desperate individuals considering suicide
- Over 15 000 sms’s, emails, online forms and whatsapp chats were received
- SADAG is the biggest generator of press and media coverage – worth R75.5-million in the past 9 months, which creates public awareness
- The number is 0800 567 567
- SMS 31393
Human Potential and Parenting Expert, speaker and author: Helping you win at work and life