13 reasons to talk about teen suicide


This week we commemorate Teen Suicide Prevention Week – a taboo subject we’d rather not think about, but one we absolutely should talk about. 

13 Reasons Why, S2

Netflix is producing season two of its popular 13 Reasons Why, the controversial 2017 series about a teen girl’s suicide that created such a huge buzz last year that it was released with warnings upon warnings. 

In season 1, Hannah gives 13 reasons why she died by suicide (like most TV series, this one comprises 13 episodes), which she recorded onto 13 cassettes, one for each person who played a role in her decision to take her own life. 

The series was an instant hit and inspired 11 million tweets within a month of its release. Some would say it’s because so many young people recognised themselves in the characters. 

Of course, the producers insist the raison d’être for the sequel isn’t commercially motivated, but rather to clear up unanswered issues from the first season, including flashbacks of Hannah who remains part of the storyline. So really, it will probably mostly be sensation-driven, but let’s hope it would have educational value too. 

What the stats say about teen depression and suicide

Teen Suicide Prevention Week from 11 to 16 February offers a great opportunity – at home and at school – to talk about how teens experience life. 

Stats show that 23 South Africans die by suicide daily, and that depression plays a role in 90% of cases. In every 24-hour period there are 460 “unsuccessful” suicide attempts – that’s around 20 people per hour who find themselves in a pit of hopelessness. 

Our society is experiencing a mental health crisis – and many teens don’t know how to ask for help.

Our always-on culture

A recent book has detailed how the 21st century digital lifestyle contributes to unprecedented emotional distress among our youth. They’re called the iGen generation, the generation that was born with an iPhone or iPad in the hand, if you will. The book by Jean M Twenge, a US professor in psychology, has this telling title: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. 

Of course the smartphone can’t be blamed for the problems of the iGens, instead, we should blame the time these kids are allowed to spend on their devices. Adults too are increasingly becoming addicted to their phones. The Google search term “smartphone addiction” hit a new record in January this year, and a new Microsoft report details how digital technology in fact makes companies less productive. 

Evidence of the negative effects of social media and smartphones on society, and the youth in particular, is mounting. One recent US study concluded that teens that spend more time on their devices are unhappier than those who also participate in other activities. A Facebook report found that people who aimlessly surf online feel worse afterwards. A group of paediatricians and mental health experts are now pressuring Facebook to close its Messenger Kids app. Meanwhile, schools in Paris have prohibited cell phones altogether. 

There’s a growing demand for mental health support worldwide – what’s drastically needed is an intervention. A group of ex-tech workers just urged Facebook: “Consider the harm you’re doing to kids!”

A British study found that self-harm among 13- to 16-year-old girls has increased 68% in just three years. Among 10- to 19-year-olds, the prevalence among girls was three times higher than among boys. Warning bells are ringing: those who self-harm has a significantly higher risk for dying by suicide.
We may not have these statistics available locally but we can safely accept that South African teens experience the same stressors due to their 24/7 connections to smartphones – and the ills released from this digital Pandora’s box.

For one, there’s FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – which can seriously scar especially girls who feel excluded from the “in” group.

More than 50% of primary school teachers said they weren’t trained to deal with today’s mental health issues in the classroom, according to another British study. While child mental health services are under immense pressure in the UK, schools need to increasingly assist kids in identifying mental health problems in order to get them the help they need as early as possible. 

The research further found that 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 10 boys, would be depressed by the age of 14.

13 reasons why we need to talk

One thing is certain: there’s never been a better time to talk with our teens about their mental health. In response to Netflix’s upcoming 13 Reasons Why follow-up series, here are 13 reasons why we need to talk.

1. We’re more isolated than ever

The post-millennial generation, born since 2000, is more comfortable to socialise online and are physically safer than adolescents have ever been before, but they’re on the brink of a mental health crisis because they’re so isolated. Read Twenge’s article about smartphones and the youth here.

2. Knowledge is power

Empower yourself and read as much as you can. Start with the World Health Organisation (WHO) website’s section on depression, with easily digestible information. Here’s another great website with info on depression, self-harm and suicide: https://mentalhealthscreening.org/programs/youth.

3. Break the stigma

Talk about depression and related illnesses such as anxiety using everyday language, in the same way you would discuss diabetes or cancer. These are all illnesses anyway. 

4. Know what your kids are up to online

Parents need to be informed about their kids’ activities on social media. Research has shown that the human brain is only capable of taking well-informed decisions at a later stage, leaving teens extremely exposed and defenceless on social media.

5. Teachers have to play their role too

During the week, children spend more waking hours at school than at home. Teachers need to broach mental illness and how it can be accelerated by a digital lifestyle in regular classroom discussions – and not just during Teen Suicide Awareness Week. That’s if it’s being discussed at all this week. But teachers – and parents – please do use this opportunity to touch on this difficult subject. Sadag www.sadag.org offers great resources to help you get started. 

6. Nip cyberbullying in the bud

Parents and schools need to work together to ensure that bullying, especially cyberbullying, is stamped out. Kids are skilful actors and won’t easily show if they’re being victimised by cyber bullies. And that while kids are increasingly being ridiculed on social media for simply giving the wrong answer in class.

7. Teachers can help parents

Unlike parents, teachers are trained in child and adolescent development, so they need to be aware of the possible pitfalls and offer parental guidance. 

8. Talk about self-harm

We have UK statistics on self-harm among girls, but it’s a growing phenomenon worldwide. To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) is a movement that offers great information on their website. It’ll arm your teens with knowledge and help strengthen them against the vicious cycle of self-harm.

9. Lift the veil: suicide isn’t romantic

There’s a morbid fascination with suicide – that’s why articles about suicide score such high click rates – and yet it remains a taboo topic. Break this paradox, and the dangerous romanticising of suicide, especially that of celebs, and instead talk about depression and fatal depression as a treatable illness and a preventable tragedy. 

10. There’s no such thing as “uncomfortable” topics any more

Forget about the outdated notion that these topics are to be discussed in hushed tones by adults only. Speak out – talk directly and openly about mental health, the dangers of our always-on digital culture, and how this could lead to an unforeseen cul de sac. Yes even on the brink of a young adult’s dreams.

11. Help your kids to feel in control

Empower your kids so they’ll feel more in control of their situations. The Netflix series, and probably the sequel too, offers simplistic answers, such as that bad relationships lead to suicide, whereas suicide is in fact caused by a biological malfunctioning brain. Talk about relationships, all sorts of relationships, and that the end of a relationships doesn’t cause suicide.

12. Ignoring uncomfortable topics won’t make them go away

It’s a fact. Just as illnesses won’t go away when we ignore them, they’ll get worse. And can even become fatal. So use this week and TALK. 

13. Stay positive

Lastly, get as much information as you can to help you keep the conversation positive. It’s all about empowering yourselves and your kids. The more you know about a paralysing illness, the better you can protect yourself against it. 

  • Lifeline 24-hour helpline: 0861 322 322
  • SADAG helpline: 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393
  • SA Federation for Mental Health, www.safmh.org.za
  • The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): www.sadag.org

Join the panel discussion:

Lizette Rabe is professor at the University of Stellenbosch and founder of the Ithemba Foundation (www.ithemba.org.za). On 24 February she’ll lead a panel discussion in the Breytenbach Centre in Wellington. Participants include author Dana Snyman, who lost his fiancée, psychiatrist Dr Cobus McCallachan, who lost his daughter, and pediatrician Dr Gerrit de Villiers, who lost his son. For more information, email info@breytenbachsentrum.co.za.

Have you spoken to your children about mental health? How did you have the discussion with them? Tell us by emailing chatback@parent24.com and we may publish your comments. 

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