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
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
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.
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).