The National Centre for Child Protection said 20% of high school pupils have tried to take their lives.
About 10 children commit suicide a day, with some as young as six years old.
This is among the findings by the National Centre for Child Protection, who told The Citizen more needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable in society.
“While it is difficult to comprehend children as young as six years old are resorting to such a dire step, it is imperative we shed light on the issue, raise awareness, and seek solutions,” CEO Danie Van Loggerenberg said.
‘I cannot continue and want to die’
The organisation has been visiting schools countrywide and through this and their 260 Child Protection Hotlines found a tragic increase in cases of self-harm and suicide attempts among children.
“Our counselling line receives messages daily along the lines of ‘I cannot continue and want to die’. This exact sentence was received this morning (Wednesday). There is great concern for the mental and physical well-being of learners at schools,” he said.
Although comprehensive data on suicide among children is often challenging to obtain, the centre reported 20% of high school pupils have tried to take their lives. A larger percentage have written a note or started writing one to declare their intentions to commit suicide.
It also found an increase in suicide rates among children aged 10 to 14. The youngest person to commit suicide in the country was a six-year-old boy who hanged himself in a school bathroom in 2017 in Limpopo.
The National Centre for Child Protection said suicide rates in South Africa are generally highest among boys, reflecting a global trend. However, girls also face significant risks, and their numbers are increasing.
“It’s crucial to recognise that suicide among children is underreported in South Africa. Stigma, cultural beliefs, and the sensitive nature of these cases often lead to families keeping such tragedies private,” said Van Loggerenberg.
Reasons children call Childline
Childline South Africa has noted a drop in suicide cases in recent months but said the numbers are still concerning.
From January to March, Childline received 94 calls about abuse and bullying in school and 23 of bullying out of school. From April to June those numbers dropped to 93 and 21. They received 82 calls from January to March about suicidal feelings and 70 in the period from April to June.
They got 41 calls about suicide attempts between January and March, and 23 from April to June.
“A child losing their life to suicide should not be normal. It is our view that if the child ends up committing suicide, a number of or all protective systems are not functional in the child’s life, therefore all of us are lacking in the care and protection of a child.
“We encourage children who feel that they are going through more than they may deal with to contact a counsellor at Childline by calling our 24-hour toll-free line,” CEO Dumisile Nala told The Citizen.
Battle against bullying
Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told The Citizen they are concerned about the number of cases of suicide among young people, especially those of school-going age.
“The troubling trend is that these incidents are linked to cases of bullying, which seems to be increasing. The department has embarked upon and is intensifying its response by hosting mental health workshops around the country.
“The Department of Basic Education has since 2021 started an anti-violence and stop bullying campaign. This campaign involves members of the community and all major stakeholders including learners, traditional leaders and other government agencies,” he said.
How can I help my child?
Van Loggerenberg said besides bullying, depression, anxiety, and other undiagnosed mental disorders may exacerbate emotional struggles. Poverty and financially-strained households can often expose children to things such as abuse, neglect, or the absence of emotional support can also contribute to suicidal tendencies.
He said often children will try to hide their struggles from their parents.
“Our counselling line also receives a number of requests from children, who do not want their parents to know that they have requested help. They often mention that their parents will simply not understand and do not believe in mental health issues.”
Child psychologist Genevieve Da Silva said parents need to spend more quality time with their children and create a safe space for them to share what they are going through.
“It’s about creating a safe place for the children. That is important. Whether that is driving to school, time just before bed, or at the end of the day. It is just being with them,” she said.
Dr Alicia Porter, South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) board member, said not every child who is depressed may be suicidal.
“Don’t dismiss their concerns when they make statements like they want to die because talking openly about suicide is not going to encourage children not to do it. It’s about seeking help should your child need it. With access to technology, there has been an increase in mental health concerns.
Porter added: “Depression and anxiety look very different for children versus adults. Things like bullying can be a precipitating factor or stressor in children.”
She said parents should take note if their child suddenly shows no interest in going to school, has an increase in physical pains, becomes irritable, or has a decline in their academic functions.
“With children when they have mood symptoms it might not present as a depressed mood but may present as irritable, more like tantrums. They may become more socially withdrawn and have low energy levels. This may be a red flag. It is important to tune into the state of your child’s mental state because children struggle to articulate how they feel so they often act out. It is important to notice this.”
Depression and anxiety are very treatable, Porter said.
The National Centre for Child Protection has 24-hour free counselling hotlines available to children and the public on WhatsApp, SMS and phone calls.
National Child Protection Hotline – 076 900 7151
Counselling Hotline – 076 037 6345
Bullying Child Protection Hotline – 071 253 8385
Cyberbullying Child Protection Hotline – 076 694 5004