EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | Save teenagers who are quietly battling with thoughts of suicide
Don’t scroll past. Let’s talk about teen suicide.
The dance floor was packed with sweaty bodies dancing to the life-affirming tunes that Melville was used to.
You could hardly have a conversation in that space, but Liquid Blue was such a popular club that on some weeknights it could take a while before you were at the front of the queue. I was a regular reveller for many years. My friends and I would return, at some point, every night, from Thursday to Saturday, just because we could, and because, well, it was a cool spot. I cannot vouch for it currently, having retired from Melville debauchery. Mercifully, smart devices were not yet ubiquitous then, and so our naughty secrets are not digitally stored.
One evening, as I was floating around the club, having a gay old time, a young man stopped me, and gave me a compliment that is not the kind of compliment you want to get, and yet it is simultaneously deeply moving, and affirming. He thanked me for living openly as a gay man. He told me that he had thought of taking his own life. He struggled to get out of bed daily because he simply no longer had the will to live. This was fuelled, sadly, by homophobia in his family. Their hatred for who he is nearly snuffed his sense of self-worth. When he heard me on the radio at nine o'clock in the morning, he felt less dispirited, he said, holding on to the thought that he could live a meaningful or productive life as a queer person, like the voice on the radio, that of that confident, openly gay, talk show host. I thanked him, smiled clumsily, encouraged him to not give up, before we went our separate ways.
I have never forgotten that interaction. I hope that brave young man may yet read this recollection, and maybe even reach out again. I hope his family’s homophobia did not win the war.
So many young people think of suicide, and some then attempt to die by suicide, often doing so successfully.
We do not like talking about suicide. It makes us uncomfortable. We make the mistake of changing the subject or avoiding it entirely. That is not going to save teenagers who are quietly battling with the trials and tribulations of life.
We must pay more attention to the inherent challenges that come with the mere fact of being a human being.
Being alive affords us opportunities for deep connection and joy, but also for unbearable emotional pain, some of it sustained and some of it episodic or event driven. That is why an open conversation about suicide is so important.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is putting the spotlight on teenagers, with Teen Suicide Prevention Week running from February 12 till 17. This offers us an opportunity for an explicit and intentional focus on teen suicide. That is why it is helpful during this week to also follow their Twitter campaigns, #CheckInWithSADAG and #StopTeenSuicide. That said, campaigns cannot be limited to days we have highlighted on the calendar because life’s challenges do not come to an end when official campaigns do.
There are deep underlying structural injustices that require our urgent and collective societal attention.
The situation is very serious. Though more rigorous empirical data needs to be collected and collated, some of the pre-Covid-19 numbers and trends that SADAG shared with me paint a gloomy picture. During lockdown, that gloomy picture darkened, as many more teenagers (and adults) experienced even greater levels of mental health difficulties.
This lockdown nightmare came on top of an existing horror, that of almost 1 in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year resulting from suicide. Up to 20% of high school pupils had tried to take their own lives (as reported by the South African Society of Psychiatrists).
The youngest suicide in South Africa that SADAG is aware of was a young boy of six years old in grade 1. Many suicides are not reported, and so the cases we do come to know of are likely a partial picture of the true crisis.
No one should be giving up on life at such a young age. That alone tells us that there are deep underlying structural injustices that require our urgent and collective societal attention. The raw data matters, but obscures the stories of injustice, and of the material conditions, that lead to a greater risk of suicide ideation or actual attempts to end one’s life.
Teens are the most at-risk age group for suicide in South Africa, according to SADAG. But the general population is also not unaffected.
Pre-Covid-19, SADAG received just over 600 calls per day. During Covid-19, those call volumes doubled overnight. Currently, SADAG receives over 3,000 calls every single day. One in four calls are suicide related. In addition to these calls, SADAG is receiving hundreds more SMSs, WhatsApp messages, and emails.
These are pre-teens, children that should be enjoying the naïve freedom of not yet being aware of grave existential threats in the world. But the world is not sparing them and not nurturing them.
Teenage boys use particularly aggressive methods of suicide (such as a preparedness to be struck by a train), so strong is their determination to complete a suicide attempt. That said, teenage girls attempt suicide more often than boys. It is important to understand these trends within the various demographic subcategories. This will allow for targeted rather than generic interventions to be designed and recommended by experts.
SADAG's call centres now also get more and more calls from younger children (as young as nine years old) who are wanting to end their lives. These are preteens, children that should be enjoying the naive freedom of not yet being aware of grave existential threats in the world. But the world is not sparing them and not nurturing them.
We cannot look away and should take full responsibility to change this brutal reality.
Bullying in our schools, for example, tends to be reacted to when a particularly brutal case of bullying makes it into the news cycle. We then respond with outrage, if we respond at all, before quietly going about our business once the story is off the radar of news editors. As stakeholders within our school communities, however, it is important to actively engage in the development of sound anti-bullying policies, and to monitor their implementation, to ensure that our schools are safe places for children to be free of the kinds of harms that could lead, among other dangerous consequences, to self-harm, including attempts to end their lives.
This, in turn, requires resources to be made available.
SADAG also gets requests from teachers, schools, and parents to intervene, including at primary schools. We expect our teachers to not only teach but also to be, effectively, social workers, and psychologists. That expectation is not only inherently unfair as a workplace burden to impose on them, but the unfairness is multiplied by the state's indifference to the lack of resources within the schooling system to address the psychosocial needs of children and teenagers at risk of dying by suicide.
We need a multisectoral approach and cannot simply send our children to schools that are part of a broken educational system. We can also not reasonably expect teachers to perform miracles. That is not a systemic solution to this complex crisis.
The onset of mental health difficulties are induced by gross levels of poverty, unemployment and the language of violence being spoken by all South Africans as our unofficial twelfth language.
What makes this discussion all the more difficult is that every part of our lives is implicated in it.
Gross levels of inequality and poverty, underpinned by an economy that is not growing, worsened by levels of unemployment among young people being over 60%, and the language of violence being spoken by all South Africans as our unofficial twelfth language, are all facts that conduce to either the clinical onset of mental health difficulties or event specific acts of self-harm, such as suicides resulting from losing a job, not passing matric or shame that you cannot take care of your children.
Teenage Suicide Prevention Week is, narrowly and importantly, about teenagers. But ultimately, this is an issue that reveals the cracks in our entire democracy. We must do better as a matter of self-love.
Where is the department of health in this conversation about suicide? Where, furthermore, are the departments of education and social development, who should work in tandem with the department of health, fund organisations like SADAG, and recognise that mental health, like food in one’s tummy, is a precondition for our children to develop into well-adjusted, productive, adults and active citizens? Where is the state? And where are powerful non-state entities like big business who could help fund civil society organisations that do work which benefit all of us including workplaces that surely do not wish to recruit prospective employees who have deep underlying traumas that will eventually manifest?
Where are they? Eerily silent.
For any teen or young person who feels sad, depressed, helpless or hopeless, or that you are all alone — please know that there is help! There is hope! Contact @TheSADAG’s free 24-hour Suicide Helpline 0800-567-567 or SMS 31393 or chat to a counsellor via WhatsApp on 076-882-2775 (8am-5pm).
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