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Addressing child suicide in a troubled, challenged society

Depression and anxiety NGO, Sadag, says the number of suicides among children aged 10 to 14 years old has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

Picture: Christa Eybers/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG – The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says young people resort to suicide when they experience stress and pressure and they are not able to find the necessary support.

Sadag says the number of suicides among children aged 10 to 14-years-old has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

Last week, a grade two pupil at the Khulamlambo Primary School in Mpumalanga allegedly took his own life by hanging himself with a tunic belt.

Nine-year-old Lebo Maseko was found hanging from a swing, by two of his peers, on the school grounds after pupils had been sent home due to the cold weather.

Clinical psychologist and Sadag board member Zamo Mbele says while it is uncommon for children to take their own lives, hanging is the most frequently used method of suicide.

While it is unclear what led to Maseko’s alleged suicide, his mother Siphiwe says it is hard to believe he would kill himself. She describes him as a happy child.

But Mbele says there could be a number of reasons that lead to young people ending their lives.

He lists three possibilities: “The first could be a complicated home environment where there may be a lot of violence and/or trauma experienced. The second is that of our youth experience a lot of demand and stress and there isn’t enough support – and that is related to the third one [which] is a lack of psychosocial support where things do go wrong for young people and they don’t have a sense of adults or structures to go to help them make sense of them or to cope.”

The psychologist adds that, given the violent history of the country, intergenerational trauma is also a possible contributing factor.

“Trauma is likely to have been a factor in this incident, not only in the classic post-traumatic stress symptoms or experience where somebody witnesses a violent incident or accident that doesn’t have sufficient resolution – [but] where there is an intergenerational trauma which is much more complex as you can imagine with the history that we have as South Africa.”

LISTEN: Child Psychiatrist Dr David Ben on child suicide

ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH CARE SERVICES

Mbele says South Africa has limited resources to respond to psychiatric illnesses, especially in young people - with an average of about 40 child psychiatrists in the whole country.

The psychologist further explains the challenges experienced by different population groups in accessing mental health care.

He says black communities are statistically considered to be the more vulnerable part of society as they are more prone to experiencing trauma and violence; which means they are more likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“They are also a segment of society that has the least access to help and support where necessary”, adds Mbele.

People living in peri-urban and rural areas are more likely to attempt suicide and less likely to have the sufficient resources, both in social development and health, to access in times of trouble.

He says that makes the population more vulnerable than those living in urban areas.

The psychologist suggests working together with non-governmental organisations to reach communities that aren't reached by the government.

HAVING THE SUICIDE TALK WITH A MINOR

The conversation around how one begins to speak to a young person about suicide and depression is similar to that of knowing when to have the "sex talk".

Parents have asked whether discussing such hard topics doesn’t mean running the risk of planting the seed in the minds of children.

Mbele says it’s never too early to start.

“Research has shown that it is already something that is contemplated, so to speak to them about it doesn’t put it in their minds. However, it allows them to get some support and help on how to think about it. Another way that is helpful to speak to young people is to teach them how to speak about it and give them the capacity and vocabulary and encourage an openness that will get a good prognosis for future wellness.”

Sadag says a lot of its drives and campaigns are aimed squarely at learning institutions as they realise that young people spend the most time in the care of their educators.

“We do recognise that it is both the educators and the institutions of education that have our young people for most hours of the day; to the extent where we can equip and support the institutions to both recognise when something has gone wrong and promote health and psychological well-being.”

PAY ATTENTION

Where as bullying and intimidation are thought to be the common reasons for child suicide, the Khulamlambo Primary School says it doesn't have reported cases of bullying and doesn’t know what could've led to Maseko's death.

Parents are encouraged to pay more attention to their children so as to spot any changes in their behaviour such as loss of appetite, aggression or introversion, which may be signs that they are experiencing psychiatric difficulties.

At the same time, the police in Mpumalanga says it is too soon rule out any foul play.

WATCH: An American family's cry for justice: Was a young boy bullied before suicide?

Sadag is a non-profit organisation that offers counselling and support to persons struggling with depression and anxiety. If you know of someone contemplating suicide or you are in need of support, organisation that offers counselling and support to persons struggling with depression and anxiety. If you know of someone contemplating suicide or you are in need of support, contact Sadag on their Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567 or send an SMS to 31393

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