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Teen suicide: is there a mental health crisis?

by Laurel Pretorius
Teen suicide: is there a mental health crisis?
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As a mother of two adolescents who are going through their own mental health ups and downs, I believe it’s appropriate to worry that a mental health crisis in our youth is causing suicidal tendencies like never before. By Laurel Pretorius

In South Africa, at least 1 out of every 5 adolescents (ranging from age 10 to 19) has attempted suicide, according to SASOP (South African Society of Psychiatrists), and 1 in 10 teens have tragically ended their lives. Let that sink in.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that depression is globally the third highest disease burden amongst adolescents, and suicide the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds.

Our teens are in crisis

As a parent of adolescent daughters, I have become deeply concerned for our youth and even more so since COVID. The very recent headline on a media release, “Globally teen depression reached an all-time high”, prompted me to write this piece because, seriously, what is going on with our teens’ mental health?

Educational Psychologist Jo Hamilton says, “I have seen a rise in child and adolescent depression, with suicidal ideation and intent, over the years, particularly in the young adolescent age group (around ages 10 to 14).” She also says that whilst there are multiple factors that can contribute towards an adolescent feeling suicidal, she has noticed “a frequent report of emotional isolation and loneliness and a lack of interested, meaningful connections with people such as peers and family.”

“What is going on with our teens mental health?”

READ MORE on the Dangers of social media

Parents play a part

I believe that  we, as parents have played an unintentional role in contributing to our teens’ mental health issues. I don’t mean to sound harsh or disparaging and I include myself in this controversial statement, but the sooner we admit that we have played a part, the quicker we can begin to do something about it.

Why do I say this? Well, we have allowed the contagion of social media seep in. We have given our teens permission to “connect socially” online since the beginning of their adolescent years and this has created a generation of extremely disconnected teens. We haven’t put proper boundaries in place. Or perhaps we did but when it was too late. Our kids spend excessive amounts of time on their devices “connecting” with “friends” on social media and they have completely bought into the idea that this virtual world is the be all and end all of everything. To our teens, it’s the promise of connectivity and a better life, but what it ultimately ends up doing is leaving them feeling lonelier and more disconnected than ever.

The constant scrolling and seeking validation through likes and comments has only exacerbated existing mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression. As parents we need to teach our kids to find a healthy balance between online and offline activities. We need to help them foster a sense of belonging in the physical world.

Mental Health Counsellor, Shalom Grays, from Back2Life Counselling says, “The impression of influencers and celebrities on social media and the absolute impossible need to be as attractive, popular, fashionable, wealthy or perfect as their idols creates impossible expectations.”

He also adds that “the culture of “everything now”, has created a demand for instant gratification, which as adults and therapists we understand is near impossible. However, when you’re younger, that’s not the rationale. The pressure from many aspects in a teen’s lifestyle is non-compromising, and so the desire to meet these expectations, when seeking to morph into a visually perfect person, creates adolescents striving towards the near impossible, and the outcome is an immediate set back, that has been subconsciously built from frustration and anxiety.”

“As parents we need to teach our kids to find a healthy balance between online and offline activities.”

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Our youth are caught in a mental health pandemic

According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report, which the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) recommends as the most recent and comprehensive data available, around 14% of youth aged 10 to 19 live with mental illness. This is around one in seven youth, globally. Do other parents find these stats as devastating and shocking as I do?

“For many years, the rise in depression has been an issue amongst teens, many therapists deal now daily with adults under 21 years of age, who suffer from depression and other psychological and physiological mental health disorders,” says Grays.

READ THIS for another perspective

3 important ways we can help our teens

So, as extremely concerned parents, what are we going to do about lowering the stats around teen suicide?

  1. Take talk of suicide very seriously

Hamilton suggests that “Parents should take their child’s comments of suicidal ideation or intent seriously and promptly seek professional consultation. Only then can the appropriate need and intervention be assessed.”

  1. Listen without prejudice

Now more than ever we need to put our own devices (phones, tablets, laptops) down and take the time to listen to our teens. Grays says, “The need for teens and parents to understand each other is never more important. Separating the need to be right or installing one’s own opinion as a parent must take second place. A parent is not a friend but a guide, a caregiver, and as such needs to learn to listen and really hear what their teens are saying.”

  1. Have a little patience

Grays suggests that “above all, patience is key because teens are not always willing to be vulnerable. But, if a parent can show vulnerability, expose themselves, perhaps by talking about their own stories of imperfection from their past, their teen will begin to relate and see that their parents or caregivers are not so dissimilar.”

“Parents should create their own support groups that come together regularly, giving them a safe space for themselves and their teens to speak freely without judgement.”

There is help and hope out there

Yes, of course the ideal scenario would be to put your medical aid card to good use and seek out a psychologist immediately but not all South African families have this luxury. What then is the solution?

“To assist families there are many helplines, free counselling services and therapists attached to religious organisations, community centres, and welfare clinics,” Grays says. He also emphasises that a lot of these organisations are overwhelmed and suggests something that I think makes a lot of sense. “Parents should create their own support groups that come together regularly, giving them a safe space for themselves and their teens to speak freely without judgement.”

I’m not going to lie; my husband and I have been dealing with one mental health crisis after another as our girls entered their teens – some issues more serious than others. We regret not having put much stricter boundaries in place with regards to their access to the social media platforms. What I have discovered since is that most of the parents in my circle have also been dealing with much of the same. We need to become more open about our teens in crisis. I do believe this will help. Let’s start talking to each other. Let’s listen more to our teens and let’s finally build those circles of safe support. Because where there is help there is always hope.

READ 7 steps to mental health for moms

If your teen is showing signs of depression or having suicidal thoughts, you can seek help from the following organisations:

SADAG Suicide Crisis Helpline

0800 567 567 (available 24/7)

SADAG Support Groups 
0800 21 22 23  (8am to 8pm)
0800 12 13 14  (8pm to 8am)
Or SMS 31393
LifeLine National Counselling Line
0861 322 322 (available 24/7)

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