It’s quiet inside the bridal store - just the sound of traffic outside, muffled by rows of ivory wedding dresses. Liesl Gottert, a woman with long blonde hair and wearing a black and white patterned dress is sorting them.
Next to her is a large, framed photo of a smiling teenage girl, hands on hips. She stands on a beach in a lemon-colored vest and polka dot shorts, her tanned wrist decorated with multicolored beads.
As the sea washes over her feet, she radiates vitality.
But on August 11 the girl - 14-year-old Klara Gottert - took her own life.
That day, when she didn’t return home from school, her mother phoned her daughter's friends and searched places where she could be, like her favorite skateboard park.
“So I was running around like a lunatic, looking in all the wrong places for her,” recalled Gottert.
Darkness descended on the Johannesburg suburb of Westcliff, and Gottert searched her daughter’s room for clues about where she might be.
Klara’s current favorite song, ‘All of Me,’ by John Legend, was on repeat on her computer. The American R&B and soul singer was crooning:
What's going on in that beautiful mind
I'm on your magical mystery ride
and I'm so dizzy, don't know what hit me, but I'll be alright…
Liesl remembers a “chill” running through her bloodstream as she listened to these lyrics.
Her mother later learned Klara had hitched a ride to a mall north of the city. There, she climbed the steps to the building’s roof.
“And it was late at night, she was in trouble, it was dark, she was supposed to be at home, and I think the emotional situation overwhelmed her,” said Gottert. “And she sat there and fell to her death. The police were called and they found her body and they phoned me…”
Gottert said her daughter had difficulties common to most teenagers: She was battling with school lessons, felt rejected by some friends and had the “usual tensions” with her parents.
“Huge fights and small fights, and we disciplined her and she was sometimes punished for things but it was nothing that was out of the ordinary or obscene. For her to have done something like this leaves a myriad of questions that is just so hard to answer,” said Gottert.
In retrospect, she said, as much as she loved Klara, and as much as her daughter’s problems seemed “normal” to her, she failed to realize how depressed she was … until she read the girl's journals before her funeral.
“And I can see from that she was overwhelmed by a friend who said something nasty at school or a brother who teased her, or I punished her… It would probably be easier then [for her] to make an erratic decision that doesn’t make sense, in an unbalanced mental state.”
Teen suicide ‘epidemic’
Gottert's research into teen suicide has since helped her realize just how easily teenagers inflate small problems, because many don’t have the life experience necessary to be able to put them in context.
“They blow their worries out of all proportion, until it spirals and they are not able to see a way out of the situation because they keep quiet about it and so in the end there’s no one to help them,” she explained.
Klara’s death is part of a spate in recent months of teenage South Africans committing suicide.
Gottert maintains: “I don’t think it’s a sudden phenomenon; I think it’s something that’s been happening for a long time and it’s been underreported, and undervalued. And that people don’t really talk about it enough, as much as they should.”
Police statistics show that teen suicide can truly be considered an “epidemic” in South Africa.
On average, 23 teenagers take their life each day. Ten times more, an average of 230 teenagers, attempt to take their life each day.
"Now that’s a hell of a lot of kids who are troubled,” Gottert said.
According to South Africa’s Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), there’s a suicide every hour in South Africa, and growing numbers of these casualties are teens.
SADAG says its research shows that suicide rates among children aged between 10 and 14 have nearly doubled in South Africa in the last 15 years.
Gottert has a few ideas about why this is happening, given her experience over the past few months.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with our unequal society," she said. "Poor children kill themselves simply because they’re poor and they feel worthless, and because life is just nothing but hardship for them. Middle class and upper class kids kill themselves because never has the pressure been greater on them to succeed, to compete and to achieve, to be number one, to own as much as possible…
“All this is happening as our society becomes more and more materialistic and competitive and more pressure is put on kids to be successful. And when they don’t achieve as much as we’d like them too, and when they get teased at school because they may not be as wealthy as other kids, they start to feel worthless and depression creeps in.”
Gottert said it’s important to note that even though such causal factors were absent in her daughter’s case, she still took her own life.
“It shows that all our children are at risk, and we have to be aware of this; we have to be so careful with them,” she said.
Attempt to halt the scourge
Klara’s death and the harsh statistics motivated Gottert to establish an organization to try to prevent as many teen suicides as possible.
The Klara Gottert Foundation, hopefully in conjunction with groups like SADAG, plans to coordinate a network of professionals to counsel youngsters and ease their anxieties and depression.
SADAG is already visiting schools across the country to educate teenagers, parents and teachers about the “warning signs” of teen depression and suicide, and where to get help — including its suicide crisis helpline, the only such facility available to them in South Africa.
Gottert said SADAG is doing “excellent” work in this regard, and she hopes her foundation’s efforts will supplement this, and “put a human face,” through Klara, on teenage depression and suicide.
She added that her organization wants to cooperate with other mental health groups, schools and parents to establish what she calls an “early warning system” to help teenagers before it’s too late.
“We’d like to also use it as a referral center to specialists in their field, whether it’s social services or the police or psychiatrists or teachers or spiritual leaders…”
No psychiatric help for most teens
The majority of pupils in South Africa don’t get any mental support from the state, and private help is often too expensive for their guardians.
Liesl said private psychiatric assistance is “beyond” most teens in the country, except those whose parents are very wealthy, and public mental health facilities “don’t exist anywhere” in most provinces.
To overcome this dearth, even in just a small way the Klara Foundation plans to get children talking about their problems at school, in various ways.
“We’d like to launch and carry competitions for children to write about their experiences, how they can better themselves, how they can grow and develop,” Gottert said.
She added that the nonprofit also plans to help parents who blame themselves for their children’s deaths.
“As a parent your sole responsibility is to love and cherish and take care of your children, to protect them from harm. And to feel that you may have failed in that, even if an external situation was at play, is a huge burden that needs to be worked through,” she explained.
But Gottert said the foundation’s main objective will be to make the government, parents and teachers aware of the pressures that teens are under in modern-day South Africa, and to get them to pay attention to youngsters’ problems, no matter how “small and unimportant” they seem.