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Child Caring

Is South African teen suicidal? It's not worth the gamble to assume he's not

Hi Barbara,
We thought it best to move my 16 old to a school close to his father and due to finances...he coped well the first 8 days, was even elected representative student council, which is excellent for a new kid. He is, however, in a very deep depression all of a sudden, he's begging us to move him back. He sms'ed me that he can't go on, I'm devastated. How worried should I be? Thinking of moving him back...

From: Gizelle, South Africa


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Dear Gizelle,

Yes, I would take it seriously when a 16-year-old says things like, "I can't go on," even if you can't imagine what is so terrible about his life. In the US, at least, the entertainment industry has made suicide part of our culture and research more than suggests that it is something teenagers think about -- it has become a leading cause of teen deaths.

Here's the thing: For many kids, when they make statements like your son has, it's just an abstract thought: "I'm so miserable and unhappy, I wish I were dead." It's not a concrete, viable alternative, it's just a fleeting thought. But given the impulsive nature of adolescence, who can say what might tip a teen from thinking about it in the abstract to thinking about it for real?

My advice is to ask him what, specifically, he means when he says he "can't go on." And even though it might frighten you to do so, ask specifically: "Are you thinking about killing yourself?"

I know, this is a question most of us are afraid to ask. We worry we will plant a seed. The opposite is true: it lets our teen know we take them seriously, that we truly care about them and, most importantly, that no problem is so big there isn't help available. Specifically, tell him:

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem; there are always ways to get help. Together, you can find the help he needs.

If if he doesn't want to talk to you, that's OK, as long as he finds an appropriate adult to talk to.