Is your teen suicidal? These are the important signs to look out for

If I think back to my teenage years, I felt overwhelmed by my feelings and found solace in unhealthy behaviours.

Could you imagine taking your own life? That the pain you felt inside was overwhelming and the only way out was to end it. 

Unfortunately, this is the awful reality for many teenagers across South Africa. We can never fully understand the amount of pain that a person must be experiencing in order to physically hurt themselves in the hopes of dying. 

In light of it being National Suicide Prevention Day, I wanted to write about how we could try and play a positive role in the prevention of suicide. Because, believe it or not, we can be a positive influence in preventing suicide and in my opinion, it is one of the most important roles that one could play in society. 

In South Africa, the suicide rates are shockingly high, especially in men and in both male and female teenagers. 9% of deaths in South Africa are teenage suicides, from the tender age of 15 to 24-year-olds, as mentioned by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. 

Doesn’t that scare you? It certainly scares me. 

Research has shown that men tend to hide their feelings and would rather self-medicate with alcohol or suffer in silence than talk about their pain. I often attribute this to the unfortunate social development of “boys don’t cry” ideology, because if men are caught with tears in their eyes, they are automatically seen as weak. 

I’m afraid that this causes men to keep their worries to themselves, whether these are financial concerns, work stress and/or worrying about their family. But something I have noticed, and it is a significant similarity, is the correlation between what adult men and male and female teenagers have in common; it is the lack of communicating feelings. I

If I think back to my teenage years, I felt overwhelmed by my feelings and found solace in unhealthy behaviours as well as completely shutting out the people who loved and cared about me. I found it easier to hide away and it seemed to me that if I spoke about my feelings it made them real and I didn’t want that. 

I didn’t understand my emotions, just as any other teen wouldn’t, but I felt alone because of it, and it is all very ironic! In saying that though, it is possible that my teenage years differed to the average teenager, because I also experienced bouts of clinical depression during my teens. Regardless, perhaps we should start by instilling healthy behaviours and coping mechanisms as the key focus in this developmental stage. 

For example, open conversations about one’s feelings. Why not create a programme within schools across South Africa that promotes a healthy narrative around feelings and suicide? I think it could make a world of difference, and I think it is a highly valuable suicide prevention tool that should be considered.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” – Phil Donahue

In writing about this, I asked my parents how they would describe my teenage years, if they could, and I had a good chuckle when they said “chaotic” and “confusing”. I too would describe my teenage years as chaotic, confusing and all over the place. Don’t forget that at this age you are trying to figure out who you are and when you have these crazy hormones bouncing around – you tend to understand yourself less and less. On top of that, you have peer pressure and the need to fit in with every other teen. What a crazy time! 

Let’s also not forget to mention how much screen time can influence us these days. I hate to say this, but it’s true and needs to be addressed. In my opinion, social media can be hugely influential in increasing the risk of suicide in teenagers. There are cyberbullying opportunities with easily accessible content and exposure to people all over the world who could be untrustworthy. 

Furthermore, if we review the way in which social media platforms are currently being used, it’s obvious that moments shared on these platforms are often exaggerated, manipulated to look a certain way and at times unrealistic, but, moments such as these become the reference of which teens watch, take in and aspire to achieve.

When they are unable to achieve or attain such, the comparison is automatic, and feelings of sadness may set in. In all honesty, and I know for a fact that I am not the only one here, but I still tend to compare myself, my life and my daily routine to others that I see on social media. It doesn’t matter if I know them or not, I constantly compare my life to theirs and often they win the “best life award” in my mind. I have recently convinced myself to try to stop such comparisons. 

I want to urge everyone to think about this deeply and to take notice of how often social media platforms turn us against ourselves. The reason for bringing this up is because I want you to imagine this in a teenager’s world. Teenagers’ hormones can change rapidly, and with a dip in serotonin levels in the brain, with the “right” circumstances, depression can occur, and with it may come thoughts of suicide. 

Depression affects people in numerous ways, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to recognise the symptoms in teenagers, as soon as possible. One of the most important reasons why is because the teenage brain is not fully remodelled yet and the impulse control is not as strong as it should be. Thus, teens often make rash decisions without fully thinking them through, according to Stanford Children’s Health. 

Could it be that such impulses could have been the cause of many teenage suicides worldwide? Perhaps the impulse control was so severe that the thought of suicide was the only way. It saddens me, however, because the change in hormones affect the change in thinking and it could be possible that a brain chemical change was merely seconds too late. 

I think you could understand the utter urgency to remind and share this with every single person because it could save a life. The following symptoms are used universally in identifying suicidality according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Dsm-5 ):

  • Changes in eating: look out for a decreased or increased appetite and weight changes.  
  • Changes in sleeping habits: keep an eye out for changes in sleeping habits. Is your teen sleeping too much or sleeping too little? Does your teen look exhausted?
  • Unexplained or unusually severe, violent, or rebellious behaviour: is your teen acting out in ways that they would never normally do? Is this behaviour dangerous to themselves or others?
  • Withdrawal from family or friends: track your teen’s willingness to spend time with others, including spending time with you and the family. Take notice if he/she has completely withdrawn from their ‘normal’ social interactions.
  • Sexual promiscuity, truancy, and vandalism: have you seen this type of rebellious behaviour, as if he/she has no care at all and is willing to participate in risky behaviours?
  • Drastic personality changes: This could be instant or over time. Has your teen shown drastic changes in what he/she would normally be like? These personality changes can occur from hormone changes, however, such changes can cause poor decision making and impulse thinking – resulting in dangerous ideas and behaviour.
  • Agitation or restlessness: Your teen may display outbursts of anger and could show impatience. This type of behaviour could be due to the misunderstanding of their own feelings as well as not feeling comfortable or out of control in a particular situation.
  • Talking or writing about committing suicide or joking about suicide: if you have heard your teen talk about suicide more frequently whether they have a sudden interest in the topic, are making jokes about suicide, or if they have threatened suicide, take action immediately.
  • Giving away prized possessions: this is a very common sign associated with suicide and must be taken seriously. Giving away possessions is sometimes a way to finalise their decision to commit suicide.
  • Academic performance: your teen may decline in their academic performance and begin to care less about what they achieve. This is a common symptom associated with depression. 
  • Grieving a loved one: If this person has lost a loved one and is grieving a death, suicidal thoughts may occur frequently. Take special care and get them to see a counsellor or psychologist.

In my opinion, this is how you can help someone who may be suicidal:

  • Be there for the person, provide support as best as you can. If you feel that the person may harm themselves, do not leave them alone and assess whether they need to be hospitalised.
  • Call a crisis line if you are in a situation where you are unsure about what to do.
  • Communicate with the person and ask them how you can help. Simply asking what the person needs may be helpful.
  • If this person has attempted suicide before, take extra precaution because the risk for a successful suicide is high. In such cases, stay with the person and seek medical help.
  • Check-in as often as you can, kindness can go a long way.
  • Remind the person how much they are loved and cared for.

I hope that somehow, someday we could significantly lower the suicide rates or better yet, eradicate suicide completely. I believe in kindness and support and if more of us reach out to those who are struggling, you never know how many lives could be saved. 

If you or someone you may know needs help, please visit SADAG for crisis line contact numbers.


Not understanding her own mental illness, Klair embarked on a journey into the world of psychology, finding solace in the understanding of the human condition. She quickly learned how important it is to help others and to eradicate the stigma attached to mental illness. Klair utilises her knowledge and her own experiences to write about what matters – mental health. Her writing became a huge part of her own personal recovery, and a means to offer insight, further understanding, and support to those who struggle daily. She chooses to write vividly, courageously, and honestly by exposing her inner vulnerabilities and fears in order to create more awareness. Klair also believes that there needs to be more exposure in light of mental illness in South Africa, specifically with regards to teenagers. She strongly believes in the importance of creating awareness in order to identify and prevent high-risk behaviors that could be a result of an underlying mental illness. Often, mental illness in this developmental stage of life is overlooked and put down to “teenage hormones”. Such assumptions are Klair’s personal bugbears and she aims to educate and alter people’s preconceived ideas regarding the topic. Changing the stigma associated with mental illness requires us to not only open up the conversation and talk about it but to action it too. She feels incredibly grateful to be able to write about her mental illness in the hopes of creating a safe community for anyone in need of help and support, and of course to change lives.


Klair Shelver

 

Klair, a kind-hearted and loving 27-year-old aspiring clinical psychologist, loves the simple things in life – the comfort of the ocean, long drives with good music as well as reading and writing. She is a deep thinker who encountered mental illness from a young age, having documented her own experiences in countless journals from the get-go she has decided to share her journey with the world.

You can find Klair over on Mental Health Matters More

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