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You may have heard of the Netflix TV series Thirteen Reasons Why, about a high school student who commits suicide and leaves a box of cassette tapes with one of her classmates explaining why she did it. While this may be a fictional TV story, the truth is that teen suicide is a real-life issue that affects thousands of young people in South Africa every year.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), while some suicides may happen without any outward warning, most do not. Research shows that around 75% of all suicide victims give a warning of their intentions to a friend or family member. If you have a friend who you think may be contemplating suicide, what can you do to help them?
Ask them if they feel suicidal.While you may think that you’ll be making the situation worse, don’t be afraid to ask them straight out (but in a caring way) if they’re feeling suicidal. Realise that asking someone this won’t cause them to have suicidal thoughts: if their answer is yes, they would have had these already. Allowing them to talk about the issue may help them feel less lonely and more understood, which can help to prevent it from happening.
Show them that you care. Above all, you should let your friend know that you care about what’s happening to them, and that you take them seriously. Listen to them talk, ask them gentle questions and help them share their feelings with you so that they feel heard and supported.
Learn more about depression. It’s estimated that 60% of people who commit suicide are depressed. So, if you are talking to a friend who is a suicide risk, there’s a good chance they are depressed too – and if this is the case, you can be more help if you know more about the disease. Above all, let them know that they shouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty for feeling depressed, and never tell them to “get over it”. Depression is not about an attitude adjustment – it’s a mental illness that needs to be treated.
Invite them out. People who are suicidal often feel alone and misunderstood. To help them feel less isolated, try asking them to join you for a bit of simple socialising, such as a cup of coffee or to a movie on a Saturday. Keep it to just the two of you rather than including them in a large group. There’s a good chance your friend may refuse the offer, and that’s fine. If they do, keep asking them gently but persistently, or offer to visit them at their house instead of going out.
Tell someone. If your friend admits that they are suicidal, tell someone you trust, such as a friend, a parent, or a teacher. You can also call the SADAG helpline on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393 (SADAG is open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm). Don’t feel like you are betraying your friend if you tell someone; it’s better to lose the friendship than for them to lose their life.
Help them get help. A suicide support group can help your friend feel like they are not alone, and it also lets them make contact with people who are in their situation, or who have been there before. Contact SADAG to find out about suicide support groups in your area.
If you think your friend is in immediate danger of committing suicide, take them to a hospital, casualty or to a clinic. Otherwise, it’s important to be as supportive and gentle as you can, and to be their sounding board for them to share their feelings. At the same time, remember that you cannot shoulder the responsibility of making them well – this is a big decision that needs to come from them.
DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is for educational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms or need health advice, please consult a healthcare professional.