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Depression and Suicide: Warning signs and treatment

Depression and suicide are two very serious issues in today’s society. It is important to understand more about depression as this illness, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.

Depression is a mental health condition that severely affects the way a person feels, thinks and acts daily. This condition leaves people feeling sad, lonely, isolated and full of despair – these feelings can lead to thoughts of suicide. No one should ever be ashamed to admit that they are suffering from this disorder, as it is common and research shows that at least one in six South Africans suffers from anxiety or depression.

There are some key symptoms which are directly related to depression, these include:

  • Reduced interest in things that were previously enjoyable
  • Withdrawal from social and day to day activities
  • Mood changes causing irritability and restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Changes in weight and appetite – can cause people to eat too little or too much
  • Crying
  • Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or body aches
  • Feeling hopeless and/or worthless
  • Thoughts of death and suicide
  • Lower sex drive


What is the cause of depression? This is a common question but the answer is not simple, as there are many factors which are involved – the first being biological. It is believed that depression is an imbalance in the naturally occurring substances in the brain and spinal cord known as neuro-transmitters.  Serotonin and norepinephrine are the two main neurotransmitters that are related to the symptoms of depression.

Other factors include genetic characteristics, medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid and heart disease as well as certain medication such as blood pressure and sleeping pills. Environmental factors such the loss of a job or loved one, divorce or early childhood trauma are also linked to depression as well as changes in hormone levels or substance abuse.

The good news is that if you identify the symptoms early enough and seek treatment, you will be on the road to recovery. Treatment includes therapy or medication or a combination of both.

It is a good idea to offer emotional and physical support to friends and family with depression by helping out with lifts, accompanying them to the doctor, regular phone calls and visits to check in on their progress.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from any of these symptoms please urge them to seek help. For immediate help you can call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 12 13 14.

Suicide is closely related to depression as those who don’t seek help become overcome by sadness feeling like there is no hope and resort to taking their own lives, leaving behind devastated family and friends.

Teenage suicide in South Africa has steadily increased over the years. Suicide in children between the ages of 10-14 has doubled in the last fifteen years and research shows that it is the cause of 8% of all deaths. After hearing this, it is even more important to look out for the various signs and symptoms that can be linked to suicide as identifying these symptoms early on could save a life.

Warning signs for at-risk individuals:

  • Speaking about wanting to die or wanting to commit suicide
  • Expressing feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and having no reason to live
  • Expressing feelings of guilt or shame
  • Experiencing unbearable physical or emotional pain
  • Feelings of being a burden to others
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Habitual alcohol and drug use


There are many conditions and factors that can increase a person’s risk of suicide and the most common characteristics shared by those attempting suicide are:

  • Depression and/or substance abuse
  • Various medical conditions
  • Chronic pain
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of physical or sexual abuse
  • Having weapons in the home
  • Recent release from jail
  • Exposure to suicidal behaviour of friends or family


People who have suicidal thoughts are not trying to attract attention as it is considered to be a sign of extreme distress and this should never be ignored. Family and friends often play a huge role in identifying these symptoms and urging them to seek help.

There are a few ways that you can help someone with these symptoms, namely:

  • Asking the person if they are thinking about suicide – research shows this question does not increase suicides
  • Keeping these individuals safe by removing any items that could cause harm to them (razors, scissors, firearms or drugs) as well keeping them in a safe environment.
  • Take them to an emergency room or clinic in severe situations but do not leave them alone.
  • Listen to the individual and try to understand what they are thinking and feeling.
  • Assist them in getting the help they need by putting them in touch with the necessary professionals.
  • Follow up with the individual at risk after treatment as research reveals this helps to reduce suicides.
  • Add the emergency numbers of the necessary professionals to your phone so that you are able to help them at any time.
  • Enquire about support groups in the area.


Treatment for individuals at risk of suicide includes therapy and/or medication. If you or anyone you know are at risk of suicide please seek help immediately whether it be from a family member, friend or medical professional. Please also contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for suicidal emergencies on 0800 567 567

It is important to remember that depression can be treated and suicide can be prevented, so please take note of the above warning signs and you could save someone’s life.