South Africa is facing a suicide crisis that aptly rose last month — September is dedicated to suicide awareness.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group reports that there are 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that commits suicide, 10 have attempted it. Before Covid-19, the organisation fielded 600 calls a day.
As of September 2021, that number had risen to 2 200 calls a day — an increase of nearly 40%.
We live in a stressful society. The recent lootings and their aftermath point to the socioeconomic challenges, violence and fragmented homes and communities we live in. It is important that we seek to understand the reasons for the increased suicide rates, and, more devastatingly, the extent of these rates among young people.
Khutso Mabiletsa was a 19-year-old pupil at a Lebowakgomo, Limpopo school before she was found hanging in her home. Mabiletsa was allegedly bullied into suicide by a schoolteacher. University of Cape Town research has shown that during the pandemic, "isolation, uncertainty, economic strain, bereavement and loss have resulted in heightened anxiety, particularly for school-going young South Africans".
The prevalence of suicidality in our community points to the mental health crisis we are facing as a society. We cannot talk about suicide without talking about depression, which is one of the prevalent mental health issues in South Africa. The lifetime prevalence of depression in South Africa is 9.7% or 4.5 million, and 70% of people who attempt suicide have a mental health illness.
While Covid-19 may have exacerbated mental distress, mental illnesses such as depression are not new phenomena. This means we need to seriously question why many people find themselves backed against the wall, to the point where suicide becomes the only way to deal with life's challenges.
Is this learned helplessness? Is it the pressure of living in continuous stressful and challenging circumstances, or a lack of access to resources and skills that promote mental health?
While we ask questions, we also need to act. The alarming figures we face require a more active role in the prevention of mental health illnesses, rather than a reactive one.
The problem with a reactive approach is that firstly, the individual would have already died, and secondly, the devastating impact has already been put in motion. Where options are few in times of crisis, most people, particularly young people, may feel as though suicide may relieve their pain or distress.
With the scarcity of school and community-based programmes that deal with issues of mental health, particularly in low-income communities, these cycles then go on for generations, with devastating impacts on the entire community.
It is important to understand some of the contextual and historical factors that contribute to the prevalence of mental health issues in our society.
Poverty and continuous stressful environments: A driver of depression
South Africa has the most unequal society in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 63.0. Living through that economic disparity and trying to survive a pandemic may lead to continuous traumatic stress.
Poverty goes beyond a lack of food and access to other basic needs. It referred to the inevitable exposure to continuous stressful environments. Under such conditions, people may experience feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and feel stuck in situations that may never change.
Many people have lost their source of income and struggle to make ends meet. Many have lost their loved ones to Covid-19 and have had their mourning and grieving processes interrupted due to lockdown regulations and other factors.
While the severity of mental health is so striking, it is often ignored, as attitudes and stigma toward mental health persist. It is important that we engage in topics about mental health as an empowerment and preventative measure, to ensure that people are well informed about the importance of mental health and how to cope when faced with threats to our mental health.
This then extends to the ways in which we talk about mental health and how we perceive and treat those faced with mental health challenges in our society. We need to take responsibility for the ways we may contribute towards exacerbating the effects that mental distress can have on individuals and communities through our ignorance, negligent language and attitudes.
There is a need for increased community awareness and engagement around issues of mental health for the purposes of psychoeducation and to empower people with resources and skills to better manage mental health challenges.
As September ends, we should all reflect and act on suicide prevention. We need to raise awareness, stop the stigma and promote mental health.
Our efforts will not mean the absence of mental illness, but rather a lifestyle where each one of us is able to feel that we are active and valuable members of society. We need a lifestyle that helps us to manage our daily challenges and reach our full potential.
You can call the Childline South Africa 24-hour helpline at no cost on 116, or you can visit the online counselling chat rooms at childlinesa.org.za/status, which are staffed from Monday to Friday, 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm. Or go to Child Welfare at childwelfaresa.org.za to find the nearest child-support organisation in your province. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group can be contacted on 0800 121 314, or send an SMS to 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.
This op-ed was first published in the Mail & Guardian.