Be aware of the signs that your teen is in distress and take them seriously.

Here’s what to do if you suspect they may be at risk.

An alarming 9% of all teenage deaths are suicides, according to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in 2022.  Worse still, one in five of South Africa’s high school learners have tried to take their own lives – and this figure is climbing.

These statistics aren’t surprising, says Lebo Mhambi, a psychologist at Mediclinic Denmar Mental Health Services. Adolescence is already a difficult time, characterised by physical, cognitive and social changes, she points out. And when you add school stress, potential bullying and peer pressure to the mix, many teens start to question their identity and relationships. Those who don’t find quick answers may start believing that suicide is the only solution.

Warning signs

What parents need to know is that 75% of teens contemplating suicide give warning signs, such as prolonged sadness, tearfulness and hopelessness, which are typical symptoms of depression. “These are not to be taken lightly,” Mhambi emphasises. “Many teens withdraw from their families and friends, which is especially worrying. When you’re isolated, you tend to be flooded by negative thoughts that can become overwhelming. This is when suicidal thoughts tend to creep in.”

Joking about suicide is another red flag. This can take the form of seemingly flippant comments, like “nothing matters”. Or they can be more serious, such as “I just want to sleep and never wake up”, or “I wish I were dead”, which require immediate action.

A teen who appears to be saying goodbye – either by sending farewell messages by text or on social media or giving away items they value – should also be watched carefully, Mhambi warns.

Finally, look out for a drop in self-care, reckless behaviour such as excessive drinking and unprotected sex, use of addictive substances, self-mutilation (cutting with a sharp object, like a toothpick, on the thighs and forearms), or getting excessive piercings or tattoos.

What to do next

A parent faced with such signs will most likely feel panicky and unsure of what to do next. “The most important thing is to show you’re supportive and are not judging them,” Mhambi says. “Don’t imply that they’re being dramatic or seeking attention; this will make a bad situation worse, as you’re belittling a cry for help. Broach the subject with your teen face to face.

“Start the conversation by asking questions backed by reassuring statements, such as “Lately, it seems as though something is bothering you. Whatever it is, I love you and I’m here for you. Ask them to share what’s troubling them and if you’ve noticed direct signs of suicidal thoughts, ask outright if they are thinking of killing themselves.

“Try active listening when they respond, which means listening without imposing your beliefs or values. Again, avoid judging, as they may interpret this as abandonment and rejection. Never use statements like ‘that doesn’t sound so bad’, ‘just think positively’, or ‘other people have it just as bad’.”

Encourage your child to stay connected with their friends so they avoid isolation and keep observing their behaviour for further warning signals. It’s also a good idea to get help from a trained professional.

“Above all, don’t berate them for their thoughts,” Mhambi says. “It takes a lot to be driven to such a point – your teen does not need to feel shamed at a time when they most need your support, as this will only make them withdraw even further.”

Expert help is available at Mediclinic Denmar Mental Health Services or go to to find a mental healthcare professional near you.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.