The past two years have seen a sharp rise in teenage suicide globally.
No words could ever adequately describe a parent’s devastation upon the suicide of a child. This grief cuts way deeper than that of a death caused by illness. More often than not the warning signs were there – but were misinterpreted or not attended to.
The past two years have seen a sharp rise in teenage suicide globally. This can, in part, be directly attributed to the worldwide actions by governments because of the COVID-19 virus. Locked down, children of all ages have been denied natural growth stimulators, also emotionally. Teenagers strongly feel the burden of lack of personal interaction. And while technology has enabled schooling to continue, so much has been lost that this generation will probably become known by an epithet describing what they have lost in human terms.
Says Hanlie Boshoff, narrative therapist in Centurion: “Parents have become digitally distracted – we all have. But interaction and communication between parents and teenagers are still the mainstay of good emotional health.
Depression has become as common as toothache. The pandemic has exacerbated this as everyone felt depressed at least some of the time. But long-term depression which kicks in is different to a short-term feeling of “the blues”. And although things are ‘back to normal’ the effects will be with us for years to come. In teenagers, signs differ from that of adult depression.
“Research has shown that parents find it difficult to tell the difference between ‘ups and downs’ and teen depression that needs treatment. And even when parents may correctly identify it, many barriers such as access to treatment, financial difficulties and poor communication with the teen could prevent seeking help,” says Boshoff whose practice, Tiqvah, specialises in teenagers with challenges.
“One tell-tale sign in teenagers is their increased irritability. This commonly leads to impatience, disrespectful behaviour and defiance. Extreme reaction to criticism is another sign. And right at the end of the pendulum’s swing, is aggression. Monitor your teen’s response to risk-taking, criticism, and failure…. His reaction could tell you he is suffering from depression. Added to these signs could be social withdrawal or joining the wrong crowd. Both could be the first step towards problems like alcohol/substance abuse, even self-harm,” Boshoff points out.
Other symptoms to watch out for: feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest, tiredness, memory loss, sleeping problems and appetite loss. If the teen suffers from Major Depressive Disorder, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and panic disorder could further be part of the picture.
“Family units are under stress. Single parent families or children brought up by grannies, these realities are what we see in our society. But even traditional nuclear families are no longer devoid of these digital distractions. Stress also increases substance use (or abuse) which affects families. Out of control parents spell trouble all around,” explains Henda van der Merwe, director of CMR Gauteng-Oos, a social work NGO with 13 satellite offices across Pretoria.
Are we raising a mentally disturbed generation? The answer seems obvious. A recent South Africa study showed that around 17% of teenagers had contemplated suicide in the first six months of last year.
But all is not lost. Boshoff says families can prevent these problems from arising by following a few guidelines. Cutting down on screen time is the first rule. “Face-time is crucial. Make time to talk and connect every day. This is a time to connect, not to teach and criticise,” she stresses.
“Parents should lead by example – turn off your phone and encourage them to do the same when socialising or focusing on work. Encourage them to get involved in activities – as they start to re-engage they will feel better. Volunteer. Doing things for others is a powerful antidepressant and a self-esteem booster. Doing things together will be a great bonding experience and give them a sense of purpose. Your love, guidance and support can go a long way toward helping your teen overcome depression and get his life on track.”
Van der Merwe concludes: “Social workers deal with the results of unfocused parenting every day. Family units are falling apart, and children failing to reach their potential – we believe parents need more training and support to help them raise a healthy new generation. This means putting a stop to endless technological stimulation and giving your children personal attention and spending time with them.”