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What is suicide?

Suicide is when someone causes their own death. Suicide is a tragic event that has strong emotional repercussions for the families of its victims.

Most suicide related deaths in South Africa are because of depression. While some suicides may occur without any outward warning, most do not. The most effective way to prevent suicide is to learn to recognise the signs of someone at risk, take these signs seriously, and know how to respond to them.

Risk factors for suicide among the young include:

Some people are at greater risk of suicide than others, but it’s important to know that risk factors don’t cause suicide. Some people have lots of risk factors and never feel suicidal, and some suicidal people have only a couple of risk factors.

  • previous suicide attempts
  • talking about death or suicide
  • the presence of mental illness especially depression
  • experience of abuse
  • conduct disorder
  • alcohol and/ or drug abuse
  • the availability of weapons in the home
  • feeling very sad or in great emotional pain and having lost hope that anything can change
  • feeling isolated and alone
  • death seems like the only way to escape the pain
  • feeling worthless and undeserving and see oneself as a burden on those around them
  • desperately wanting help but feeling too scared to talk to anyone
  • history of non-suicidal self-harm (e.g. superficial cutting)
  • bullying or exclusion by peers
  • low self-esteem
  • grief (e.g., loss of a family member or close friend)
  • exposure to suicide by others, or family history of suicide
  • groups of people who experience exclusion e.g. LGBTIQ
  • the period after initiating anti-depressants is a high risk period as anti-depressants reduce demotivation and low energy which may have been the only thing stopping one from going through with the suicide

Many parents/ caregivers find it difficult to know how to support their child.  Equipping yourself with information about suicide is the first step to helping your child. It is also important to let your child know that they can trust you with their suicidal feelings.

Many young people struggle to access help when they feel suicidal due to the following barriers:

  • stigma – they don’t want to be judged – so they just don’t talk about it
  • fear they will not be believed
  • fear of being called an ‘attention seeker’
  • feeling worthless – not worth being helped
  • concern for others -not wanting to tell in case the caregiver feels burdened

Young people do show caregivers that they want help, but often in ways that are not easy to notice or understand.  These warning signs might just seem like typical teenage behaviour. A young person might seem suicidal one day and fine the next, so it’s important to take all warning signs seriously. Warning signs come in many forms – conversations, feelings, physical changes and changes in behaviour.

 Common warning signs of suicide

  • hints about wanting to die such as “I’d like to go to sleep and never wake up”
  • talking about death a lot (even in a joking way)
  • withdrawing from others – not seeing friends, staying in their room all the time
  • not doing things they used to enjoy
  • talking about feeling alone, things being hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • talking about feeling worthless or being a burden on others
  • giving away possessions or saying goodbye
  • increased drug or alcohol use
  • dramatic changes in mood
  • self-harming such as cutting
  • risk-taking or recklessness that suggests no fear of death
  • having the means of suicide such as medication or weapons
  • talking about suicide
  • being depressed for a long time and suddenly seeming happy could indicate that the person has made a decision to end their life

Tips for caregivers

  • Take any warning signs seriously- do not ignore them

If you’re at all concerned, trust your instincts and don’t just hope things will get better on their own. It’s essential that you take your child’s concerns seriously, even if their problems seem small and unimportant to you.

  • Ask if they’re okay and show that you care

Sometimes parents are scared that talking about suicide will put ideas in their child’s head. This is a myth. In fact, the best way to find out if someone is thinking about suicide is to ask them. Asking your child if they’re okay and telling them you’re concerned about them can be the first step on the road to recovery. Just showing that you care and telling them they’re not alone can make a huge difference.

It’s okay to ask direct questions about suicidal thoughts. For example, you can ask “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” If the answer is yes, ask about their immediate safety. Do they have a specific suicide plan? Have they attempted suicide in the past?

  • Address any immediate risk of harm

If your child has a plan and is in possession of the means to end their life, it’s important to take action straight away.

  • call Childline
  • remove any dangerous objects like medication or knives
  • in an emergency, contact and ambulance or the saps or take them to a hospital emergency room
  • don’t leave your child alone until help has arrived or you’re sure they are safe
  • Continue the conversation

If your child has been thinking about suicide, but is not in immediate danger, you should continue the conversation and support them to get professional help. There is no perfect way to start a conversation, but it’s crucial that you do. Just be real and supportive and let them know you are listening.

Always listen without making judgements or assumptions, don’t pressure your child to share personal details before they’re ready, and take all their concerns seriously. Be aware that suicidal thoughts aren’t logical or rational, and advice can be interpreted as criticism, so avoid telling them what they should do.

  • Help your child get professional support

Serious suicidal thoughts and behaviours are too much for family and friends to handle alone. Professional counselling and psychological support do help, but young people are often scared about talking to someone and may need you to guide and encourage them. You can help by taking them to a trusted doctor or health care who can refer you to a psychologist. Childline counselors are also a good place to start.

  • Be patient and continue to show how much you care

People who are thinking about suicide often feel alone, view themselves as worthless, and believe they are a burden on others, who would be better off without them. One of the most important things you can do is show them that this is not true.

Suicidal thoughts don’t go away in a couple of weeks. Your child may need support and treatment for a long time. Keep checking in with them and support them to continue professional treatment for as long as necessary.

  • Look after yourself

Learning that your child has been thinking about suicide is distressing. Don’t attempt to do everything on your own and don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself, both for your own sake and so you can be the best support for your child.

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