Let’s talk: Don’t wait for your teen to come to you
Talking to you children about their mental health may not be easy, but starting the conversation is important.
As we mark Teenage Suicide Prevention Week (14 – 21 February), clinical psychologist Nicolize Nepgen has urged parents and guardians to talk to teenagers about their mental health.
The Stikland Hospital psychologist says addressing teenage mental health is important.
“According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is globally the third highest disease burden amongst adolescents and suicide the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds, while the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) states that 9% of teenage deaths in the country are due to suicide.”
She says that understanding the signs of depression and talking about mental health are key preventing suicide.
“Communities that have insight to this serious matter can assist with the prevention of suicide. Prevention of teen suicides starts with better understanding of the symptoms of depression. Most people with depression are not suicidal, but most suicidal people are depressed.”
Parents may not always know what to look out for or what to be concerned about. Nicolize has shared the following warning signs of teen suicide. These include:
- Withdrawing from social contact.
- Talking or writing about suicide.
- Feeling trapped, hopeless or helpless about a situation.
- Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns.
- Doing risky or self-destructive things.
- Giving away belongings when there is no other logical explanation for why this is being done.
- Having mood swings.
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
- Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated when experiencing some of the warning signs listed above.
In addition, the clinical psychologist has shared symptoms of depression, as listed by SADAG. These include:
- Loss of interest in things you like to do.
- Sadness that won’t go away.
- Irritability or feeling angry a lot.
- Feelings of guilt or hopeless.
- Feeling tense or worrying.
- Crying a lot.
- Spending most of the time alone.
- Eating too much or too little.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Having low energy or restless feelings.
- Feeling tired all the time.
- Missing school, daydreaming, or doing badly at school.
- Not being able to make decisions or concentrate.
- Thinking of dying or killing yourself.
Talking about mental health
Nicolize has shared expert tips to help you get the conversation going with your teens.
Talk: “Talking about mental health and suicide are important. Don’t wait for your teen to come to you. If your teen is sad, anxious, depressed or appears to be struggling – ask what’s wrong and offer your support.”
Pay attention: “If your teen is thinking about suicide, listen to what your child is saying. Never shrug off threats of suicide as a melodrama.”
Monitor social media use: “Talk about and monitor social media usage. If your teen is hurt or upset about social media posts, encourage him or her to talk to you or a trusted family member or friend.”
Provide support: “Talk to your teen about treatment plans and monitor medication use. Don’t try to argue them out of suicide and avoid guilt-inducing statements like ‘suicide will hurt your family’. Rather let them know that you care and want to understand that they are not alone, and that problems and suicidal feelings are temporary – that depression can be treated, and problems can be solved.”
Listen: “Parents, teachers and friends concerned about a teenager at risk of suicide should be willing to listen without judgement, provide reassurance that they care and to ask questions about suicidal thoughts. Rather let them know that you care and want to understand that they are not alone, and that problems and suicidal feelings are temporary – that depression can be treated, and problems can be solved.”
Risk factors for teen suicide
Many teens who attempt or die by suicide have a mental health condition. “As a result, they have trouble coping with the stress of being a teen, such as dealing with rejection, failure, break-ups, school difficulties and family turmoil. They might also be unable to see that they can turn their lives around – and that suicide is a permanent response, not a solution, to a temporary problem,” Nicolize explains.
A teen might also feel suicidal due to certain life circumstances such as:
- Having a psychiatric disorder, for example, depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or oppositional disorder.
- Family history of mood disorder, suicide or suicidal behaviour.
- A substance use disorder.
- Access to means, such as firearms or medications.
- Exposure to the suicide of family member or friend.
- Loss of or conflict with close friends or family members.
- Physical or medical issues, such as changes related to puberty or chronic illness.
- Being in any sexual minority youth – LGBT.
- Children who have attempted suicide in the past are also at greater risk.
Understanding these risk factors are important, says Nicolize. She adds that everyone has a role to play in creating awareness.
“The process of building community suicide prevention efforts begins by initiating conversation and creating a team of individuals who will maintain the role of facilitating suicide prevention efforts. Involving the community by engaging stakeholders (i.e. employers, local organisations, government, businesses, mental health groups) hosting community meetings, formulation community goals, and working with the media can all benefit community level suicide prevention efforts.”
People wanting to help could suggest that teens talk to an external party, like a teacher, doctor, psychologist or social worker, and offer to go with them for support. Nicolize explains: “On any concerns of a suicide risk, the person should be taken immediately to a clinic or emergency department. When the condition has been identified, continue support and take an active role, for example by ensuring that they take their prescribed medication or attend schedule intervention sessions.”
You can visit your nearest primary healthcare facility or clinic for support. There are also numerous national acute helplines such as:
- SADAG – Toll-free number – 0800 567 567
- Lifeline Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0800 121 314 /0861 322 322
- Adcock Ingram Helpline – 0800 708 090
- Akeso Psychiatric Response – 0861 435 787
- Childline – 0800 055 555
- Cipla 24hr Helpline – 0800c456c789
- Dr Reddy’s Helpline – 0800 212 223
Remember that help is available, and you are not alone.