Teen suicide in South Africa: getting the facts right helps combat the problem

Claims

Two claims on teen suicide in South Africa

Source: Psychiatry Management Group (October 2018)

checked

Verdict

One incorrect, one mostly correct

  • The Psychiatry Management Group said almost one in 10 teen deaths in South Africa was a result of suicide, and up to 20% of high school pupils had tried to take their own lives.
  • Data from a 2012 study showed one in 20 deaths of people aged 10 to 19 were due to suicide.
  • A 2011 survey estimated that 17.8% of high school pupils had tried to take their own lives.


Teenage mental health was in the spotlight in South Africa on World Mental Health Day. The day, 10 October, is observed every year.

To mark the day, the Psychiatry Management Group, a private company, issued a warning on the signs of teen suicide. Its press release was picked up by the Citizen, the Star, Daily Voice and Maroela Media.

“Almost one in ten teenage deaths in South Africa every year are the result of suicide,” the release said. “Up [to] 20% of high school learners have tried to take their own lives.”

Africa Check compared these claims with the best available evidence.

Claim

“Almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year are the result of suicide.”

Verdict

incorrect

Africa Check asked the Psychiatry Management Group for the research on which they based the claim.

In response, Linda Christensen of public relations company Jigsaw provided a press release from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. It stated that “in South Africa 9% of all teen deaths are caused by suicide”.

Every year Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) reports on the country’s causes of death, using data from death notifications. Data extracted from the most recent report shows that 55 teenagers – people aged 13 to 19 – were reported to have died from self-harm in 2016. “Self-harm” covers 25 different types of death, including self-poisoning, strangulation and jumping from a high place.

The report recorded a total of 8,251 teenager deaths, from all causes, in 2016. The 55 suicides therefore accounted for under 1 in 100 deaths for this age group.

But these numbers are probably underestimated, experts warn. World Health Organization statistician, Gretchen Stevens, previously told Africa Check that suicide may not be recorded on death records because of stigma. This would skew official records.

Studies that take this problem into account may produce more reliable estimates.

565 suicide deaths in 2012

The most recent study that adjusts for under-reported suicide is the 2012 National Burden of Disease Study for South Africa. Debbie Brashaw, the director of the Medical Research Council’s burden of disease unit and an author of the study, extracted data on death by suicide for people aged 10 to 19 at Africa Check’s request. (Note: The study uses  five-year age groups, so specific data on teenagers cannot be extracted.)

The data shows an estimated 565 suicides among people aged 10 to 19. In comparison, Stats SA recorded 83 for the same period from death certificate information.

In the National Burden of Disease Study, suicide accounted for 4.5% of deaths in this age group. This equals one in 20 deaths of people aged 10 to 19.

The claim that “almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa every year are the result of suicide” is not supported by the available data. We rate it incorrect.

‘Exaggerating suicide numbers doesn’t help the problem’

Chief specialist scientist in the Health Systems Research Unit at the Medical Research Council and honorary associate professor at the Centre for Rural Health, Arvin Bhana, told Africa Check that care must be taken when information about teen suicide is shared.

“It’s very important for us to not make teen suicide out to be an epidemic in South Africa,” Bhana explained. “Exaggerating suicide numbers to bring attention to it doesn’t help the problem. It just makes it seem like it’s impossible to deal with and that is not the case.”

Bhana said schools can play an important role by finding help when they see a child is struggling. He called on parents and teachers to watch for changes in behaviour that could be caused by depression.

Claim

“Up [to] 20% of high school learners have tried to take their own lives.”

Verdict

mostly-correct

Christensen told Africa Check that this statistic came from the 2011 Youth Risk Behaviour survey, released by the Medical Research Council and Human Sciences Research Council.

It gives information on risky behaviour by South African public school pupils in grades 8 to 11.

The document says 17.8% of pupils “made one or more suicide attempts” in the six months before the survey.

This figure is slightly lower than the 20% given by the Psychiatry Management Group. It also leaves out private school pupils.

This is the most recent data on suicide attempts by high school pupils in South Africa. An author of the study, Ronel Sewpaul, told Africa Check that they will conduct another study once funding becomes available.  

Social services inadequate & overburdened

The unique problems young people face can lead to depression and suicide, according to Bhana. And the situation can get worse if they don’t receive support at home or school.

“Adolescence is a time when young people are in a state of transition,” he said. “Many things are changing for them, from hormonal influences to managing relationships to academic performance.”

Finding the right help can also be difficult, said the director of the Health Systems Research Unit, Catherine Meadows.

“Social services are very inadequate and overburdened, so people can’t get the support they need,” Meadows told Africa Check. “For many reasons, teens do not seek the care they need from primary health care services and primary health care clinics are not geared up to treat depression.

“They often don’t have the ability to provide the drugs and they don’t offer the necessary cognitive behavioural interventions.”

Edited by Anim van Wyk


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