Saturday, February 16, 2008

Welsh Cluster Continues

Remarkably, authorities have increasingly ignored the obvious links between the suicide cluster deaths sweeping Bridgend, Wales.

Reporters from the UK have talked with me often about the situation. Last Monday, I was interviewed by Times Educational Supplement correspondent Madeleine Brettingham, who is writing an essay on the situation.

Other articles continue to appear as the sad toll of death mounts.

On 17 February 2008, Scotland On Sunday published an article entitled "As the suicides of these two cousins brings the toll to 16 in one small area, a shocked community is asking why them?" by Dani Garivelli.

The article reads, in part:

It was the news the people of Bridgend least wanted to hear. In a town where suicide seems to be spreading like a contagion, two more young people had taken their own lives within hours of each other.

Kelly Stephenson, 20, was found dead in a locked room on holiday in Kent on Valentine's Day. She had just been told her cousin Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, was critically ill in hospital after "self-harming" and was unlikely to pull through. Pritchard died on Friday, when his life support machine was turned off. The pair lived just 14 houses from one another and were said to be "very close".

They seemed to have everything to live for. On her Bebo site, Stephenson, who called herself Baby-Girl-Kelly, says: "I just love to live life to the full. Always up 4 a laugh and I don't like takin things too serious," although she did admit her greatest fear was losing those she loved. A keen footballer, she had just signed for Porthcawl Lightning Strikers.

Pritchard, too, seemed to have plenty of friends around him.

Their deaths – just a week after 18-year old Angeline Fuller killed herself – bring the grim toll of young suicide victims in Bridgend to 16 in the last year. All were aged between 16 and 27 and all hanged themselves.

The scale of the deaths, and the similarity in their execution, has sparked panic in the 40,000-strong town.

Terrified of fuelling the phenomenon, those in authority have increasingly sought to deny any link between the deaths. Both Mark Walters, coroner for Bridgend and the Glamorgan Valleys, and South Wales Police have played down the notion that the spate is any more than a freak coincidence.

Campaigners, too, have lowered the shutters in the face of the tragedy, with the suicide prevention charity Papyrus going so far as to urge newspapers to stop reporting the deaths.

Yet, it takes an act of supreme will to see such a high number of suicides in such a short space of time as anything other than a sign that something is seriously amiss in the Welsh town.

Although there is no common denominator connecting the 16 people who have taken their own lives, most have been a friend or acquaintance of at least one of the previous victims. Stephenson, for example, knew both Gareth Morgan, 27, and Liam Clarke, 20, who hanged themselves last year.


After some of the suicides, remembrance walls made up of virtual bricks were erected on dedicated sites, leading some to speculate that the thought of securing "virtual immortality" was driving some of these vulnerable young people to take their own lives.

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon is not one of those who wants the deaths to be played down, although she would prefer it if they were reported in less sensational terms. But she believes her constituency is like a microcosm of Wales at large, where the suicide rate has been disproportionately high for many years.

"This is not the time for delay," she has said. "This is the time for action. I do not want to be talking to journalists about further deaths. (I] want to talk about success and how wonderful Bridgend and Wales are to live, to work and raise a family in."

There is nothing in particular about Bridgend that marks it out as likely to have more than its share of teenage suicides. Like most towns in South Wales, it suffered economically as the coal mines closed, but recovered more quickly than some, with job opportunities opening up as multi-nationals moved in.

But then, there is often no obvious reason for the suicide clusters which have cropped up from time to time throughout history. Researchers have long acknowledged that suicide can be "catching", with those who have lost a loved one in this way more at risk of taking their own life.

Sigmund Freud held a conference on the phenomenon in the 1920s, researcher David Phillips christened it "the Werther effect" after Goethe's book, The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which is said to have inspired several young men to shoot themselves in the 18th century, and sociologist Loren Coleman wrote a book on it in the late 1980s.

In the last six months alone, two distraught mothers have committed suicide months after their teenage daughters killed themselves. Suicide clusters are also common in closed communities such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, military barracks or schools, or in small towns where people are more likely to know each other. Four friends in Cromarty, in the Black Isle, killed themselves within the space of 12 months in 2004-05.

What is less clear is what lies behind such clusters. Dr Stephen Platt, of Edinburgh University's Research Unit in Health and Behavioural Change, says research suggests a large number of factors have to combine in specific circumstances for a spate of copycat suicides to occur. Underlying social problems, the way people interact and the poor mental health of those involved may all play a part.

"There is certainly evidence the risk of imitative behaviour after a suicide can be affected by the community response to it – if suicide is romanticised or normalised in any way it can lead to imitative behaviour," says Platt. "Studies of non-fatal suicidal behaviour (self-harming), initiatives that allow the victim to gain either extra attention or services by their action has increased rather than decreased the problem."

Shortly after Bonnie McClelland's son Timothy killed himself, two of his friends followed suit. "As a parent, your heart is already shattered. But then, to look into the eyes of your friends and see the pain that your child has caused, is something you carry in your heart forever," McClelland, who lives in Tampa, Florida, said.

In the year following Timothy's death there were 29 teenage suicides in her local area. "When a suicide happens, it's like a book has been taken off the library shelf. They open that book and it gives them the direction of what to do."

The 16 young people who killed themselves in Bridgend came from very different backgrounds. Eighteen-year-old Dale Crole, the first suicide victim, had recently been freed from a young offenders' institution and lived with his father, with whom he was said to have a volatile relationship.

Zachary Barnes, 17, had left school to work on the Amelia Trust Farm near Barry, but hoped to become a fitness instructor. Natasha Randall, also 17, who used the name sxiwildchild, studied care and childhood studies at Bridgend College.

What united them, beyond individual friendships, was that they all came to see suicide as a viable solution to whatever difficulties they were experiencing.

With no evidence whatsoever that these youngsters encouraged each other to commit suicide, it would be irresponsible to refer to their deaths as a pact or a cult. The personal circumstances of those involved are too disparate – and the links between them too tenuous even to refer to them as an epidemic.

Yet, it is clear from the Bebo messages sent in the wake of every tragedy – many of which could be seen as normalising or glamorising suicide – how the self-inflicted deaths have impacted on the entire community.

There can now be few young people in Bridgend who do not know someone who knows someone who has died; and few parents who are not frantically worried about their own teenage children's emotional well-being.

It is easy to see how mounting publicity and hysteria could leave the vulnerable at greater risk of following suit. Yet, those closest to the tragedy – from parents to politicians – seem at a loss as to what is happening or how to stop it. "It's like a craze – a stupid sort of fad. They all seem to be copying each other by wanting to die," said Melanie Davies, whose son Thomas killed himself in February following the deaths of his friends, Dale and David.

...Bridgend braces itself for more tragedy.

1 comment:

Kithra said...

"...Bridgend braces itself for more tragedy."

All too true I'm afraid. We have yet another suicide today, the details of which can be found on the BBC at: