Be-teen a rock and a hard place: How mental illness ravages SA’s teens
Almost one in 10 teen deaths is a suicide, and one in five high school pupils have attempted suicide
A teenager is prone to falling mentally ill by the age of 14, but the disease – ravaging youngsters globally – is going largely undetected and untreated.
The statistics for teen suicide in SA speak for themselves: almost one in 10 teenage deaths is a result of suicide, and 20% of high school pupils have attempted to take their own lives.
Teen suicide and mental illness have come under the spotlight on World Mental Health Day on Wednesday, prompting local mental health experts to urge South African families, schools, universities and religious institutions to pay more attention to warning signals and to take threats seriously.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says depression is the third-highest disease burden among teenagers globally, and suicide the second-leading cause of death in the 15-to-29 age group.
Locally, it seems the situation is not far off from the one outlined by the WHO. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) said it was inundated daily with calls from desperate teens.
“From the hundreds of calls Sadag receives every day, children, teens and young adults are dealing with many problems they feel they can’t handle,” said Cassey Chambers, Sadag’s operations director.
The main triggers include relationship problems, family issues, abuse, grief and trauma. Other factors – such as exam stress, bullying, learning difficulties, substance abuse and financial issues – also contribute to youngsters’ mental woes.
And it starts younger than you might think. Chambers said depression could affect children as young as six.
“It is important to know the signs and symptoms of depression, the suicide warning signs and how to get help before it is too late,” she added.
Dr Jason Bantjes, a senior lecturer at the Stellenbosch University psychology department, said it would be naive to think young people didn’t develop serious mental health problems, including anxiety disorders and depression.
“The fact that the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is young people and mental health ... shows that this is much more serious than we think,” he said.
Bantjes also pointed to studies that highlighted the gravity of the situation.
“The WHO reports that worldwide between 10% and 20% of children and adolescents have mental health problems. Approximately half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14. Closer to home, a study of school-going children in Cape Town found that 22.2% of children met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
He said in developing countries, young people with mental illness often struggled to access effective evidence-based mental health care and faced the possibility of exclusion from educational institutions.
Dr Sebolelo Seape, head of the Psychiatry Management Group, said the prevention of teen suicides started with a better understanding of the symptoms of depression.
“Problems may appear too big, too difficult or embarrassing to overcome, and suicide may look like the only option,” she said.
Warning signs, she said, include changes in sleeping and eating habits, loss of interest in usual activities, neglect of personal appearance or hygiene, withdrawal from friends or family and running away from home.
“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.
“All threats of suicide must be taken seriously,” Seape warned.