A a ten-year-old boy from the Northern Cape, who is an orphan being cared for by a guardian, tried to kill himself a week after he returned to school this year.
“He often talked about suicide when he returned from holidays with his grandparents – he wants to go back to them. Ever since both his parents died, he has not been coping well,” said the guardian, who may not be named to protect the boy's identity.
The South African Anxiety and Depression Group (Sadag) focused this week on Teen Suicide Prevention, but children much younger than 13 are attempting suicide and some are even getting it right.
Northern Cape social worker Douglas Tafereyi said cases of childhood suicide are rarely reported, especially when the attempt is not successful.
“Most of the parents respond very negatively towards the attempt. They will beat the child and others will treat the matter as witchcraft and consult with traditional health practitioner,” says Tafereyi.
Meanwhile, psychiatrist Dr Helen Clarke, head of the Children, Adolescent and Family Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, says South African children are living in chaos and are not coping.
“They are growing up in stressed out and distressed family units and in communities in conflict. The country’s high incidents of HIV-related deaths, road fatalities and murder, also means they are exposed to death from an early age.”
For children under the age of 10, attempted suicide is not usually caused by depression but more likely to a situation they can’t cope with; an escape mechanism and is often coupled with high anxiety, says Clarke. Her youngest suicidal patient was aged 6.
Clarke says children who lose parents or grandparents who care for them often feel that if they die, they will join their loved ones and that a lot of the pain and suffering will end.
Clark urges parents and caregivers to not react angrily to a suicide attempt. “It is understandable that you may be in shock or upset but it is important that you create a safe space for your child.”
She says that often an attempted suicide comes as a complete shock to parents and care givers: “Our children are living in absolute chaos and stress. Parents are focused on putting a roof over the family’s heads, are themselves exhausted and hence unaware of their children’s emotional state so it’s usually a big shock.”
What to do if a child is suicidal?
A child who is suicidal needs to be referred to a doctor or a health care professional for evaluation and needs to be engaged with therapy, counselling and by being taught coping mechanisms.
“It’s okay to tell the child that their behaviour is not fine, that they have their whole lives ahead of them. It highly important that you help them label the emotion – sad, angry, worried – they are experiencing. Listen to you child. Parents are very unaware of their children, yet children are very aware of the adults around them and mimic them.
“A child who has attempted suicide will be very scared and will be scared of caregivers’ reaction. It is extremely important that you do not indulge in punitive behaviour and hit the child. You need to contain the child and create a way in future that you can monitor their emotions.”
Dr Clark says it does not need to be a catastrophic thing to make a child consider suicide. Usually, she says, it is something such as a teacher shouting at them in front of the class or them seeing a boy or girl they like walking with someone else. “They have not got enough life experience to know that they can bounce back from things.”
Dr Clark urges educators to arm themselves with knowledge so that they can be a support to children, who often don’t have a safe space at home: “The most important thing is that the child has relationships with adults based on trust.”