In the wake of World Suicide Prevention Day on the 10th of September and as the rates of adolescent suicide continuing to rise, Western Cape Minister of Health, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo has cautioned communities to be more attuned and sensitive to the mental wellbeing of young people due to the strong link between poor mental health and suicide.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- 29 year olds, with approximately 800,000 individuals dying as a result of suicide per year.

“The increased levels of trauma, abuse and violence, has seen many young people seek security in gangsterism, alcohol and illegal substances. They become reclusive, displaying aggressive and reckless behaviour; showing an increase in suicidal and self–harm tendencies,” said Dr Mbombo.

The Western Cape Mental Health Review Board, who considers and reviews all admissions of mental healthcare users under the Mental Health Care Act, noted a significant increase in mental health admissions since 2015 under the Mental Health Care Act for minors (persons under the age of 18 years), presenting with suicidal behaviour.

“In the past year, 30% of the minors who were admitted under the Mental Health Care Act were recorded as a serious risk to themselves, either due to self-harm behaviours, suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts and intentions.”

“The other significant precipitant for adolescent presentations of mental health symptoms is substance abuse and use. This frequently leads to self-harm and other impulsive, high-risk behaviours,” said Head of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at Lentegeur Hospital, Dr Rene Nassen.

Dr Nassen explains that psychiatric and psychological factors such as the presence of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol may precipitate suicidal behaviour among teenagers. Other factors, such as adverse life events and distress caused by family, physical or sexual abuse, as well as bullying, may also precipitate suicidal behaviour.

“More recently, cyber-bullying has also been noted as a contributing factor to similar behaviour,” added Dr Nassen.

According to Dr Nassen, adolescent suicidal tendencies are also arising in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adolescent groups, due to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

PhD student, Sonja Pasche, warns that young people who are contemplating suicide frequently give warning signs of their distress.

“Parents, teachers and friends are in a key position to pick up on these signs and get help. If you notice that your loved one is expressing suicidal ideas, threatens suicide or self-harms – seek assistance immediately. A telling sign when young people are suicidal is that they often become withdrawn or isolate themselves from family or friends, and exhibit a depressed mood, agitation or anxiety,” said Pasche.

When noticing these trends, Dr Nassen encourages family or friends to seek medical assistance at a GP, local clinic or district hospital. “Ensure that there is supervision and an adult to accompany the young person – never leave the young person alone. Every suicide gesture, attempt or ideation should be taken seriously as it may be lethal, even if the intention was not to die,” said Dr Nassen

“Young people with suicidal behaviour can undergo a psychiatric assessment at a community clinic or district hospital, where mental health services are available. Young people who present with mental illnesses and suicidal behaviours may be referred via their local district hospital or community clinic for further assessment and therapeutic intervention to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) services in the Metro. Hospitalisation in some situations may be warranted,” continued Dr Nassen.

Dr Mbombo says that communities play a critical role in suicide prevention. “Communities can provide social support to vulnerable individuals and engage in follow-up care, fight stigma and support those bereaved by suicide. Stigma attached to mental disorders and suicide means that many people may feel unable to seek help. Let us change this and encourage public dialogue, as suicide can affect us all,” concluded Dr Mbombo.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or displaying suicidal behaviour, please contact The South African Depression and Anxiety Group via 0800 12 13 14 (24hr Helpline), 0800 567 567 (suicidal emergencies) or send an SMS to 31393 (someone will call you back).

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