Increased anxiety, rage or irritability, extreme mood swings, expressing hopelessness, change in eating habits, talking or posting about death or wanting to die and emotional distress are some common signs of suicidal thoughts in children.
The health ministry states that Namibia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and the fourth highest in Africa, after Mozambique, Tanzania and Burundi.
For the period January 2020 to June 2021, 22 male and 13 female juveniles died by suicide. During the same period, 609 male adults died by suicide, while a total of 101 adult females died by suicide.
Gender and Child Protection Specialist Dr Veronica Theron told Vital Signs reasons for this could be social isolation during lockdown which can push young people with underlying mental health problems over the edge.
“Anxiety about pandemic related issues such as the loss of a loved one (parent, teacher, classmate), ongoing family dysfunction such as domestic violence, divorce of parents/guardian, or alcohol misuse by parent/guardian, parents lost their income/business and other factors can implant suicide thoughts in children,” said Theron.
She added that the biggest factors that lead to children having suicide thoughts include family history of suicide or exposure to suicide, family history of mental illness, physical and sexual assault, ongoing family conflicts.
“Encourage open communication, let them know that you love them, support them, do not allow too much alone time, pay attention to changes in behaviour, safely secure all medication, substances and weapons at home. Never downplay their feelings, get professional help, take a child for a full mental health evaluation,” advised Theron on the approach parents and guardians could take to prevent suicide among children.
Methods reported include suicide by hanging, which tops the list, followed by shooting, battery water, drowning, cut-throat, stabbing, poisoning and burning.
Societal involvement in prevention
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that occasionally being sad or feeling hopeless is a part of every child’s life but some children feel sad or uninterested in things that they used to enjoy, or feel helpless or hopeless in situations they are able to change.
When children feel persistent sadness and hopelessness, they may be diagnosed with depression and the first step to treatment is to talk with a healthcare provider such as your child’s primary care provider or a mental health specialist, about getting an evaluation.
Society has a role to play in being the gatekeeper and ensuring that suicidal thoughts are not prominent in children.
Theron added that there is a need to have open discussions on mental health problems, including suicide among youth, treat anxiety and depression in children with the seriousness it deserves, know the signs and symptoms and the contributing factors and triggers and prevent and address social ills such as substance abuse, gender-based violence, teen pregnancies, school dropouts.
Deputy health minister Esther Muinjangue, who is a social worker by profession, said Khomas tops the list of suicide attempts and ideations, the second top region with suicide cases and second top with high cases of juveniles who ended their lives in the country. Oshikoto tops the list for juvenile suicides.
“This is an indication that suicidal behaviour is a serious problem in the region. Many of the suicide victims had previous attempts before suicide, therefore, it is a grave concern when a region has high numbers of suicide attempts. Suicide problems can be measured with both cases of suicides and attempted suicide,” said Muinjangue.