By Terena Chetty
The teenage years are a time when young people should be carefree, energetic and excited about the vast opportunities that lie ahead. While teenagers do have the pressures of academic performance, social life challenges and living up to expectations, these should be balanced with a sense of support and positivity that helps them cope. However, this is not the case for many teenagers. Many young people suffer from depression and extreme anxiety that often leave them feeling lost and alone. South African research shows that close to 25% of teens struggle with feelings of hopelessness and sadness. For some, these feelings end in tragedy, with the young person taking their own life.
Matric Suicides: Tragic Reality Year After Year
Alarming statistics show that 9% of all teenage deaths in South Africa are a result of suicide. To understand the sheer magnitude of the situation, one in five high school students have attempted to take their own life.
A major trigger of depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide is the release of Matric (grade 12) results. Year after year, tragic stories arise of young people taking their lives due to poor results – unable to face the world and feeling like they have no future.
In 2010, a Soweto high school pupil hung herself after discovering she had not passed matric. She was found with a newspaper, as well as an SMS informing her that she had failed. In 2018, a matriculant from Schoemansdale (Mpumalanga) committed suicide at 8am after receiving an SMS that he had failed to achieve a national senior certificate. Shortly thereafter, news of a second matric suicide in the same province was received – this time by a student who had received a “basic” higher certificate pass. Last year, a grade 12 pupil committed suicide at home immediately after writing her isiZulu home language paper.
These are just some of the heart-breaking cases of tragic loss of life that occur year on year in the country. According to ER24’s Johannesburg West Branch Manager, Hentie Malan, paramedics respond to numerous suicide cases at this time of the year due to the pressure of matric examinations. ER24 trauma support coordinator, Henning Jacobs, describes the scenes when such a tragedy occurs: “It can be summed up as total shock. 9 out of 10 times, the family did not expect the suicide. They could not believe that the person could do such a thing. Many people have breakdowns due to the gruesome images of their loved ones who have committed suicide”.
The Warning Signs
Even more shocking is that 75% of all suicides give some sort of warning of their intentions to a friend or family member. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) key indicators include (but are not limited to):
- Depression / Changes in personality or behaviour: These include withdrawal from life and distancing themselves from family and friends, a generally sociable person becoming negative, aggressive or irritable, loss of interest in their appearance or a drop in hygiene.
- Talking or joking about suicide: Talking about dying, or using phrases like “nothing matters anymore”, or “I won’t be around much longer”, writing poems or drawing images related to death.
- Excessive feelings of guilt or self-blame: Depressed people often talk about being a failure, blaming themselves and expressing guilt over situations
- Preparing for Death: Giving away favourite things, saying goodbye to loved ones
- Suddenly feeling better: Suddenly “feeling better” without going for treatment or counselling can be a dangerous sign that the person is preparing for suicide as an “end to all the problems” they face
What Can We As Society Do To Help?
So what can we, as society, do to prevent young people from taking their own lives? Parents, teachers, friends, family and communities as a whole need to take an active approach to changing the narratives that leave teenagers feeling hopeless and ashamed for not living up to expectations.
These are some ways of showing our young people that they are valued and loved, and that they do have a future, regardless of how dire a situation may seem at a point in time:
- Support & Understanding: Support our young people, especially when it comes to emotional support. Sometimes all it takes is making the time to listen and showing compassion. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you don’t have anyone to talk to. When it comes to parents, be extremely mindful – there is a difference between encouraging your child to do their best, and placing unrealistic expectations on them. Motivate them to harness their potential, but let them know that you love and accept them no matter what. Many suicides are due to feelings of shame and of being a disappointment to parents.
- Being Proactive: Friends and family will usually notice a shift in behaviour and / or personality. If there are signs of serious anxiety or depression, parents should be proactive in seeking professional help. This could mean taking the child to a private counsellor or seeking help through free support and resources, such as those offered by SADAG and Lifeline.
- Show Young People That They Have Options: For students wanting to pursue academic pursuits, failing matric is not a death sentence. Under certain circumstances there are options to re-write exams. Tertiary institutes offer bridging courses and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges equip students with a grade 9 or higher with employable skills. However, the reality is that not everyone is academically inclined. Skills and talents differ – ranging from the creative to the hands-on and various innovation capabilities. An academic path is not the only option. Entrepreneurship offers young people the opportunity for career and economic growth. In fact, both the government and private sector encourage youth entrepreneurship to a rising degree. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor South Africa (GEM SA), South Africans have a positive view of entrepreneurship, with more than 80% viewing entrepreneurship as a good career choice. There are also both financial and mentorship support for young people pursuing this path.
Fatima Seedat, Development Manager at SADAG advises: “Parents can support matriculants by creating a supportive environment, encouraging open communication about their feelings and helping them deal with the pressures they face. It is important to promote a healthy balance between relaxation and productive activities. Remember, the post-examinations period is a transitional phase, and providing emotional support and guidance can greatly contribute to your child’s well-being and future success.”
It’s up to us as families, friends and society to show support and understanding to our young people, and to be aware of the signs that a person could be in distress or depressed. It’s too late to have regrets after a life has been taken – often all it takes is some understanding, compassion and time to prevent a suicide.