Emo teens and the rising suicide rate in SA

"I could have stopped it… she was my best friend. I never thought it was this bad. You know… we all have problems. I thought it was just another bad day."

These are the words of a young grade-10 learner who recently lost her best friend due to suicide.

Suicide is the cause for almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa and there is growing evidence that social media sites are in part to blame for this ever increasing figure.

One group of teen 'outsiders', known as Emos, and who primarily use the Internet to connect with like-minded others, seems to be particularly at risk of suicide and suicidal behaviour such as self harming.

According to a 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) study that analysed the content of “Emo” teenage groups on Facebook they found there is indeed a connection between teen use of social media and the 'glamourisation' of suicidal behavior. 

ReadSouth Africa's troubled teens want to see their own blood 

Who are these emo kids?

The Emo phenomenon (emo is an abbreviation for emotional) began in the U.S. in the 1980s and spread across the world, from the US to Europe, Russia, the Middle East and South Africa.

It is a largely teenage trend and the members are characterised by depression and self harming - self-harm includes attempted suicide and what's known as self harming or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), along with the glamourisation of suicide.

In Suicide Solutions (2012) Andy R. Brown describes the typical Emo teen as middle-class, white and female. 

There is not much data available on the Emo subculture in South Africa, but the impact of the culture was significant enough that Rapewise held a parenting workshop on the subject in 2012 while an online dating service, Emo Chat, aims to bring together all Emo people from South Africa.

In Why alternative teenagers self-harm: exploring the link between non-suicidal self-injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity author Robert Young says NSSI has two functions. Firstly, on a personal level, it reduces negative emotions and secondly, on a social level, it communicates distress or facilitates group ‘bonding’ functions.

The study says Emo is similar to Goth and Grunge in that it commemorates moody emotions through "dark dress, melancholic behaviour and angsty music”. 

Typical songs an Emo child would listen to include “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” by My Chemical Romance, “Sugar We’re Going Down” by Fall Out Boy and “Scars” by Papa Roach.

in 2008 American teenager, Hannah Bond famously hung herself in her bedroom at the age of 13, believing her suicide would impress others in the Emo movement.  She told her parents she wanted to 'kill herself' and went into her room

Identify an Emo: skinny jeans, long side-swept bangs, hair dyed back with blue, pink, red or bleached blond highlights, black nail varnish, dark eye makeup, tight t-shirts with the names of Emo bands, studded belts, black wristbands (that conceal cuts to the wrist), thick black horn-rimmed glasses and Converse shoes.

The SA youth suicide scenario in South Africa

According to recent statistics released by the Depression and Anxiety Support Group (DASG) South African research has indicated that one in five teens thinks about harming themselves, while 7.8% of these youths actually attempted suicide before and 57.7% had told someone of their intentions to end their lives.

For every successful suicide, there are 20 unsuccessful attempts and youth between the ages of 10 and 19 are at the highest risk, according to a 2012 University of KwaZulu-Natal study. 

The SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says one out of three suicides in South Africa happen in Gauteng and a one-and-a-half times increase in suicidal deaths have been seen in the rural Eastern Cape in the former Transkei over the past five years.

Other studies have found that 24.5% of attempted suicide cases amongst black South Africans have occurred in youths under the age of 17. A total of 34% of black youths have considered suicide as an option in response to stressful life situations, such as divorce of their parents, conflict and love/relationship problems. 

SADAG research shows that although more females attempted suicide, more males succeed because boys select a more violent form of suicide. Girls are more likely to overdose on medication or take chemicals, whereas boys often hang themselves or find access to firearms.

Are Emos more prone to suicide?

The saying goes “Emos hate themselves. Goths hate everyone. Emos want to kill themselves. Goths want to kill everyone”.

Young's study shows that any teen in a certain subpopulation, such as Emo, Goth, gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered, is 2 - 4 times more likely to self-harm.

Carla Zdanow and Bianca Wright's paper The Representation of Self Injury and Suicide on Emo Social Networking Groups confirms that, if one of the aspects of the Emo subculture is a hate for oneself, then Emos may be in more danger of hurting themselves than any analogous subcultures.

In a study on suicide and subcultures published in the Australian e-journal for the Advancement of Mental Health Professor Graham Martin posits that simply identifying with the sub culture of Emo influences the child towards suicidal behaviour. 

Psychologist Dr Judith Lancer wrote a piece for Times Live titled ’Cutting’ and Your Teen” (Times Live 2011, now no longer available) in which she puts the blame at the feet of factors such as videos, chat rooms and songs about self-harm. She said the indulgent idealisation of self-mutilation in Emo subculture increased the incidence of deliberate self-injury and, more worryingly, provoked copycat behaviour among teenagers.

The SA Mental Health Federation says suicide is a desperate attempt to escape suffering that has become unbearable. Blinded by feelings of self-loathing, hopelessness, and isolation, a suicidal person can't see any way of finding relief except through death.

But despite their desire for the pain to stop, most suicidal people are deeply conflicted about ending their own lives. They wish there was an alternative to committing suicide, but they just can't see one.

Yet, and this is particularly important for parents, the SA Mental Health Federation says about 70% of those who have committed suicide often give warning signs. These include talking or thinking about death often, clinical depression, the loss of interest in things one used to care about, putting affairs in order, a sudden change in behaviour, unexpected switch from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy, visiting or calling people to say goodbye and giving away possessions.

Read: 1 in 5 SA teens just want to die

Examples of of Emo postings on the web

On Emowire.com, a social networking site that provides a platform for Emos to express themselves, one user writes:

"What does one do when their life feels broken? When your parents think your music is the work of the devil? When your grandparents think you can just wake up and be happy when you so obviously can't? Smile and nod your head? Scream and cry?  I feel so alone! ... I am the "bad kid", the one that dyes their hair black, that listens to their music too loud, the one that wears black clothes and hides in their room. I was once so diferent, so cute. I wish I could go back, but I can't, I never can."

Another one posted: "I had been cutting for about four years. I did stop three times for about 5 months max. Today, I haven't cut for about two months. It's rough, because you're used to rely on something to get you through. "

Image: A post on an Emo group, from Facebook 

Why do they do this?

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says "Today’s teens are impatient, overloaded with media and entertainment, techno savvy and street smart. Yet while they have the knowledge, they lack the awareness and maturity, and are emotionally naïve."

They say that teenagers know a lot more than their parents in terms of technology, but they have also accomplished something their parents’ generation did not – they are killing themselves far more than any other generation.

Executive member of the Psychological Society of South Africa and private clinical psychologist Rafiq Lockhat, who sees a lot of teenagers who cut themselves, explains that there are broadly two reasons why people cut themselves. "One is to cut to release what they are feeling and the other is to cut to feel something," he says.

"They fee so much emotional pain that they are trying to release it through cutting. So the physical pain somehow releases all the emotional turmoil inside."

Health24 Teen Expert says the addictive side of it is in part caused by the Adrenalin rush that happens when the person cuts.

Is anyone doing anything about this?

Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication has been involved in various youth programmes over the past 20 years.  The 5000 active Soul Buddyz and over 800 Rise Clubs running, and other social media platforms like the Rise Young Women’s Talk Show and Kwanda Programmes are but a few examples of Soul City initiatives providing a platform for the organisation to gently enter the world of our youth and the struggles they are facing – one being feelings of despair and worthlessness which, sad to say, from time to time leads to suicidal thoughts or suicide itself.

Which leads to the ever returning question - why? Why do we have to lose a young fragile life in such manner? Does this mean that the support systems in our society are insufficient?

The organisation wants to stress each SA citizen’s responsibility to be familiar with the common signs and prevent this phenomenon from increasing among our youth.

Since we all found ourselves interacting and related to youth on a daily basis through one way or another, we need to be aware of suicidal signs, especially during season changes, in order to identify and refer candidates potentially at risk.

Social media can also be used as a positive tool to connect teenagers with people who can help them. Soul City, for example has Rise and Rise Mixed and Rise on Facebook, which allow young people to ask questions about topics like depression and suicide and get answers from professionals who they may usually not have access to.

'I’m the girl nobody knows until she commits suicide. Then suddenly everyone had a class with her – are you really willing to take the risk in ignoring warning signs of suicide? 

Read more:

Adolescents are increasingly vulnerable to suicide

SA teens: High suicide risk

Teen suicide: recognise the warning signs

Your teen in trouble? Ask our CyberShrink for advice

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