Tragedy struck last year when Tuks student Duncan Allan committed suicide. Concerns about suicide were once again highlighted when Eye Witness News recently reported that a former Tuks LLB student, Chantelle Stockel, allegedly tried to commit suicide after failing to obtain her degree.

BERND FISCHER

Tragedy struck last year when Tuks student Duncan Allan committed suicide. Concerns about suicide were once again highlighted when Eye Witness News recently reported that a former Tuks LLB student, Chantelle Stockel, allegedly tried to commit suicide after failing to obtain her degree.

Studies show that about 23 people commit suicide daily in South Africa. This is according to Professor Lourens Schlebusch, a leading suicidologist from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. With suicide reported as the second leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 24, it is evident that university students are at risk.

According to Dr Benedetto Saraceno, director of the Department of Mental Health for the World Health Organization (WHO), underlying mental disorders are present in over 90% of suicide victims. Depression remains the leading risk factor associated with suicide, followed by chronic and acute substance abuse. A study by the University of Michigan shows that most mental disorders start during or shortly before the average age of university students. The problems associated with psychiatric illness are worsened by common stressors – such as irregular sleep, changes in personal relationships and academic pressure – experienced by students at tertiary institutions.

There are, however, other risk factors which could increase the potential for suicide. In Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, published by Chungbuk National University in China, it is reported that a lack of social support, feelings of loneliness and living alone are common predictors of suicide attempts. The Journal of Addictive Diseases reports that 50% of suicides are somehow related to substance abuse, with 25% of suicides committed by drug addicts and alcoholics. This is alarming evidence when one considers the drinking and drug culture that is often rife at university.

Perdeby spoke to Dessy Tzoneva, Press Liaison Officer of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Tzoneva cites academic problems, family pressure related to career choices, financial problems, relationship problems, social status anxiety, lack of self-confidence in academic performance and worrying about or struggling to find job opportunities as possible reasons for why university students might consider suicide. Tzoneva reiterates the fact that substance abuse exacerbates the issue and is generally linked to suicide.

Committed out of despair, suicide is sadly often seen as the only way out for troubled university students. In April, Anna University in India was faced with its third suicide in one month. Police confirm that the latest victim, an engineering student, could not cope with the academic pressure.

“Some students come from homes where they feel they are constantly [pressurised] to achieve and make excellence a norm,” says Nancy Nkoko, a second-year BSocSci in Industrial Sociology and Labour Studies student at Tuks. Students with financial difficulties are also more likely to commit suicide – these students might be on scholarships where they feel burdened to perform in order to avoid disappointing their families.

In 2005, a day before her mid-year exam, a fourth-year medical student at Tuks committed suicide. This prompted an investigation by three final-year medical students to determine whether medical students were at a higher risk for depression, and therefore suicide, in comparison to students studying other degrees. The report showed that the frequency of diagnosed mental disorders, use of medication and suicide attempts did not differ greatly.

Even though Student Support on Hatfield campus is available for student counselling, Perdeby’s investigations found that many students are unaware of support services offered by the university. Most of the students that are aware of these services are still unwilling to use them. In addition, the same report showed that suicide in Pretoria by those aged between 21 and 24 accounted for 8,4% of suicides in the city.

Despite the support services offered by universities, suicide clearly continues to be an issue. SADAG maintains that there is not enough focus on suicide at university level. This is an immense concern considering that universities are well positioned to promote mental health among the youth. “We get many calls from university students who feel alone and weighed down by the pressure, and who are fast losing hope that their dream lives will happen. We need to educate students and faculty members at varsities and colleges so that we can prevent suicide at these institutions,” says Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s operations director. “We would like to urge all universities to put articles and ads in their student newspapers regularly, to create awareness and provide toll-free numbers for on-campus counselling centres.”

In a collaborative effort between SADAG and Facebook, individuals can now report suicidal behaviour they observe in their friends. Once reported (anonymously), an email is sent to the user believed to be suicidal with resources and information about SADAG. “We have to work together to provide information and resources to people in crisis,” says SADAG’s founder Zane Wilson. “That’s why being part of the Facebook initiative is so valuable.”

Signs that a student might be suicidal include loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, talking about suicide, missing university, irregular eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawn behaviour and a change in personality. Family and friends are reminded to look out for these signs. If you suspect someone is suicidal, remember to approach the matter in a sensitive way.

A 2006 report by the WHO reveals that more people die annually by suicide than those murdered or killed in war, with a suicide taking place somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. With university students particularly prone to suicide, awareness about depression and suicide are crucial if universities are to win the war against this issue.

The University of Pretoria’s Student Support can be found at the Student Affairs Building, Room 2-13, on Hatfield campus. In addition to services provided by Student Support, students may also make use of the toll-free crisis line: 0800 006 428.

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