The sad and shocking news of the suicide of a Pretoria Matric boy reached the community of Pretoria East on 24 July 2019. Since then a month has gone by giving me time to reflect and observe as a psychologist how the incident unfolded.
As expected it was immediately reported that clergymen and psychologists were providing counselling to pupils of the school and all involved dealt professionally and admirably with the situation.
My focus is not on the causes, prevention or alarming rate of suicide as the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death between the 15-24 age group. My focus is how it extended to the Menlopark community. Should the reader is interested in how to support and curb teenage suicide I recommend they read more on the webpage of South African Depression And Anxiety Group (www.sadag.org). You will find valuable information and emergency lines on the webpage.
As stated above my focus is to reflect on the effect of suicide on the community. It is estimated that 115 people are exposed to a single suicide according to a 2016 study, ”Exposure to Suicide in the Community: Prevalence and Correlates in One U.S. State, report in June 2016 by Cerel J , Maple M, Van de Venne J, Moore M, Flaherty C and Brown M. Of the 115 community people exposed to the suicide, one in five reported that the experience had a devastating impact on him/her or caused a major-life disruption. The implication is that it had a major impact on an estimated 23 community members. The reality is it could be any member and most probably it is a person not considered as very close to the deceased
Important to realise is that exposure to suicide has an impact beyond family. This hidden cohort of suicide-exposed people is at elevated risk for psychopathology and suicidal ideation. In my case the news triggered my own experience some years ago as a psychologist in Pretoria where I served on a multi disciplinary panel working with suicidal patients where one of the senior physicians of the panel unexpectedly committed suicide. I can still remember my guilt feelings, awareness of my lack of experience and shock for not being able to prevent the suicide. One can imagine the impact her suicide had on the suicidal patients she supported or helped before. Therefore the unfortunate suicide of the young Pretoria East scholar impacted on me as one of the 23 community members. Who are the other 22 and how seriously did the incident elevated their experiences? Fortunately I had therapy and became more knowledgeable regarding suicide, how to cope with the effect of it and the signals and causes of suicide. What support did the other 22 community members asked for or received? The purpose of my question is not to blame or shame but to emphasise the reality that even in this case there are unknown exposed community members. Some of these community members may feel the impact in a way that feels similar to those closest to the person who had died. In a situation where the individual who committed suicide has struggled openly with mental health concerns, those who knew of the struggle will feel the pain of the loss and would most likely wonder if they could have done more. Community members who may not even have personally known the individual who died experiencing the same intensity of emotions as the close family
Since the time since the incident I am aware of a young person felt traumatised and started to struggle. Typically this teen did not ask for counselling when it was offered. This is not exceptional for teens not to expose themselves and this phenomenon is complicated. Just as complicated as the phenomenon that 75% of young people who know that a peer is suicidal will not seek help from an adult. The challenge is to have sustainable networks to identify these members in order to support them.
Now that we know one incident impacts on a larger community and have an elevated risk on 1 in 5 people the question is what can be done.
Firstly we need to work on decreasing the stigma because one of the major negative sides of stigma is that it only leads to silence. Silence about a suicide loss does leave people feeling isolated, as if they are facing this tragedy alone. When someone dies by suicide, the aftermath opens up an immediate opportunity to talk about suicide at a personal level. How you feel, the emotions evoked in you, what you think and feel. This opportunity should be recognised and longer term forums, platforms or organisations should be put in place to be available long after the incident. The impact of a death by suicide becomes confusing as the grapevine usually distorts actual facts. Communicating and sharing the actual facts of the suicidal circumstances and history usually serve to start the healing process for the close members and community members. It also serves to prevent the destructive myths of suicide.
To decrease the stigma is also the responsibility of public health as it affects all of us and it is in this arena that organisations such as the South African Depression And Anxiety Group where they contribute in a commendable way. The establishment of community groups such as faith communities are in the position to convene forums for people to come together to mourn and receive support. Peer support from people who have lost a loved one to suicide proved to be very healing. It is very encouraging and healing to know you are not alone and to connect with others who have also experienced suicide loss.
Decreasing the stigma, organising support groups, and paying attention to a suicidal death in a community increases our collective awareness of suicide as a problem and highlights suicide prevention as a need.
It is common to find valuable sustained forums and support groups established by a community who was exposed to such a suicide incident with the aim to prevent suicide or to support others experiencing suicide incidents.
I trust that this information would sensitise all involved in suicide of the impact one incident has on the family but especially the unknown community members. Who knows what sustainable initiatives might evolve within the specific Pretoria East Community originating from the unfortunate death of this remarkable young scholar to help others in the community and beyond in future?
Wim Slabbert (Psychologist Menlopark).