Teen Suicide Prevention Week: How To Save A Life

Image credit: Yours Truly

Scrolling through my teen diaries, tracing my fingertips over the deep grooves of words written by pain, I see an adolescent unknowingly battling depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I see a teenager struggling to navigate her parents’ separation. I see a young woman suffocated by the trauma of being sexually abused by her first boyfriend. I see someone who suffers panic attacks alone, with no idea what they are or where to turn to for help. I see someone who is crushed by the weight of worthlessness, someone who feels like she doesn’t deserve the world, doesn’t deserve to be in the world.

It’s currently estimated that 1 in 5 people in South Africa will (or do) suffer from a mental illness.

And as alone as I felt, I really wasn’t. Unbeknown to me, thousands of other teenagers all around the country were also suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. And today, that fact remains more true than ever.

Image credit: @gmf.designs

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as 27 teenagers per day die by suicide in South Africa – with the fastest growing age bracket being women between 15 and 19 years old.

That’s why this Teen Suicide Prevention Week (TSPW), it’s important that we speak openly about mental health issues, that we raise awareness about the ever-growing number of teen suicides happening in South Africa, and learn about what we can do to help someone suffering from mental health issues. 

It’s currently estimated that 1 in 5 people in South Africa will (or do) suffer from a mental illness, yet in many parts of the country >mental health issues are more stigmatised than ever. People are afraid to speak about what they’re going through because they don’t understand it. Often they don’t have the language to express what they’re experiencing, let alone the resources to get treatment.

I finally told my best friend that I’d been raped numerous times by my ex-boyfriend.

People are afraid of asking for help because they’re scared of what others might think – they don’t want to appear weak, vulnerable, or weird. I get it. I bottled up my suffering for years, going it agonisingly alone. I felt like no one would understand or be able to help, so there was no point in “burdening” anyone with my issues.

I felt ashamed that I was struggling in the first place. I alienated myself from my friends and family, confiding only in the pages of my diary and the deepest fibres of my bedding, where I laid crying, attempting to exorcise my distress into a pillowy abyss.

And one day I cracked. Sitting on the floor of my high school’s bathroom – the electricity of trauma running through my veins and the cold, dead weight of depression collapsing my chest – I finally told my best friend that I’d been raped numerous times by my ex-boyfriend.

Image credit: @dr.christina_

And in that moment, I was not human. I was a volcano erupting, my own truths burning my ears as they poured from my lips like kill-you-quick lava. But when the ash settled, something had changed.

I still felt emotionally fucked up in every single way, afloat in an ocean of pain, but it was as if I’d finally grabbed onto the hand I’d unadmittedly needed for so long. I didn’t know if I’d ever be okay but with that helping hand’s tight grip anchoring me, I somehow knew help was on the way.

My best friend convinced me to see our school’s counsellor – a privilege I was very lucky to have access to – and he referred me to Rape Crisis, a non-profit counselling service in Cape Town for sexual trauma survivors.

It was so hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – saying my truths aloud, solidifying them into a reality I wished wasn’t true. It was so hard, but asking for help saved my life. I learned that everything I’d been experiencing – the night terrors, the want to self harm, the feelings of worthlessness, the depression, the erratic mood swings, not being able to be in a room alone, and losing interest in things I used to love – was not unique.

I learned that I didn’t have to navigate my pain alone.

What I was experiencing was normal for someone with the mental health issues I had. And when I finally reached out for help, I knew that I was no longer alone. I knew that I did not need to leave this world by my own hand to finally escape the pain.

Reading educational pamphlets about PTSD and depression in the waiting room at Rape Crisis, it dawned on me that professionals already had a good idea of what I was experiencing before I’d even opened my mouth to tell anyone. And, more importantly, that they knew how to help me. I learned that professionals were helping people like me – depressed, in pain, and without the will to live – heal everyday.

I learned that there were so many more options than the ones I’d given myself – to skip school and smoke weed to escape panic attacks and crying in front of people, to hurt myself, to end my life.

I learned that I didn’t have to navigate my pain alone, that there are people who dedicate their entire lives to helping others get through the hardest things imaginable – whatever those things might be. Remember: there is no one experience worse than another’s, pain is relative. Everyone’s struggles matter and everyone is allowed to ask for help.

Image credit: @gmf.designs

And those professionals are still here, helping people like me and you heal… if we let them. Depression doesn’t need to be a secret and suicide doesn’t need to be the treatment. I want you to know that, and for you to tell everyone you know that. We need to create a world where people, young people especially, feel like there are other options.

We need teenagers to know that there are people who can help, that want to help more anything. People like the ones who work for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

SADAG is at the forefront of patient advocacy, education, and the destigmatisation of mental illness in South Africa. Their board of psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, and general practitioners support a network of hundreds of thousands of South Africans living with mental health issues.

Their free counselling helpline – which operates from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week – receives over 600 calls per day. They also have a 24-hour helpline for after-hour emergencies, and a suicidal emergency helpline if you, or someone you know, are feeling suicidal and would like to speak to someone. Jump to the end of this post to see their respective contact numbers.

75% of people who commit suicide give some warning.

I caught up with SADAG’s founder, Zane Wilson, to get some advice on what we (me, you, and everyone who knows a teenager) can do to help prevent teen suicide:

“#AskCareTreat (ACT) is a call-to-action to encourage early intervention when someone is experiencing difficulty navigating stress or depression and may be at risk of suicide.

You may have heard that people who talk about suicide won’t actually go through with it. That’s not true. In fact, 75% of people who commit suicide give some warning. This means all suicide threats should be taken seriously, and acted upon in order to stop a teenager from taking their life.

Image credit: @harri_golightly

The warning signs to look out for:

  • Talking or joking about suicide: any mention of dying, threatening to kill oneself, or saying things like “nothing matters”, “I wish I was dead”, or “I won’t be around much longer”
  • Depression: someone who seems to feel hopeless, loses interest in doing anything, and withdraws from friends and family
  • Preparing for death: giving away of favourite things or saying goodbyes
  • Self-criticism: saying things like “I can’t do anything right” or “I’m hideous and pathetic”
  • Changes in personality: someone who is usually sociable may not want to go out, may become negative, aggressive or irritable, or lose their friendships
  • Loss of interest in appearance/change in hygiene habits: losing interest in getting dressed/changing clothes, washing themselves, or maintaining regular appearances
Image credit: @gmf.designs

Here’s how to help:

Ask: Be direct and caring by asking the person questions about their mental health. Have you ever thought of hurting yourself? Have you ever felt like you don’t want to live anymore? Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts?

Care: Listen to their answers without judgment. Show that you care by creating a safe space for them and reassuring them that you are someone than can confide in.

Treat: Get immediate assistance. If possible, escort the person to the nearest trusted adult, teacher, or mental health professional (GP, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, church leader, counsellor, etc.) for treatment. Alternatively, call SADAG on 0800 567 567/0800 21 22 23, or sms 31393 for help.

To encourage others to get help, click here for access to downloadable Suicide Prevention #ACT posters that you can put up at your school, community centre, or on your workplace notice board.”

Helpline numbers

To contact a counsellor between 8am-8pm, Monday to Sunday, call: 011 234 4837

Suicidal emergency helpline: 0800 567 567

24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789

Image credit: @sheisrecovering

More about SADAG

Zane Wilson started SADAG in 1994 after suffering from years of an undiagnosed panic disorder. At one point, her symptoms were so bad that she couldn’t even go to the supermarket or drive on her own. After receiving treatment, Zane was able to reclaim her life but realised that for so many people who didn’t enjoy the same privileges as her – access to the right healthcare professionals and information on mental health – this would never be the case.

What started as weekly meetings in the Sandton Library between a group of people, discussing what they could do to help those suffering from mental health issues and living in low-income households, rural areas, or poverty, has gone on to be South Africa’s leading mental-health, non-profit organisation.

There’s little SADAG doesn’t do to give people the hope and support they need in the most desperate of situations.

Beyond their free counselling helplines, SADAG also has a Diepsloot Container Counselling Centre situated in Diepsloot Extension 2, next to the fire station. The Container Counselling Centre offers free counselling, referral and support to the residents of Diepsloot. Learn more about it here.

SADAG also creates and disseminates educational materials on mental health issues, giving people the information they need to better understand depression, bipolar, PTSD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, trauma, sleeping disorders, schizophrenia, teen suicide, and drug abuse.

They also offer a referral service to mental health professionals and free medical treatment where possible. They conduct workshops and training programmes for schools, universities, businesses, correctional facilities, churches, and youth groups.

And from suicide-prevention campaigns rolled out across TV, radio, and digital, to training home-based care workers on how to identify depression in their HIV and Aids patients, there’s little SADAG doesn’t do to give people the hope and support they need in the most desperate of situations.

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