As Bridgend tries to understand why it has a cluster of seven teenage suicides, our correspondent finds bored or desperate youths may see death as the only thrill left.
Suicide is far from painless, both for the people who do it and for the ones they leave behind. The cluster of seven suicides in Bridgend, south Wales, has left scores of grieving relatives and friends and the rest of us stunned at the thought that these young people – some pictured partying just days earlier – could take their own lives.
Disturbingly, the town’s teenage population seem less surprised by the tragic events. Below a steady drizzle, a group of teenagers outside a Bridgend off-licence discuss their dead friend Natasha Randall, the most recent in the series of suicides to have afflicted the town and the only girl. Their rationale is shocking.
“Perhaps she just got bored,” says Aaron, a 17-year-old in a hooded top and trainers. “It’s depressing living here. There’s nothing to do and we’ll never get decent jobs. The best I can hope for is to carry on stacking shelves at Tesco.”
Already two other teenagers have tried to end their lives and 12 pupils at a comprehensive school are on suicide watch. Dan-ielle, a 16-year-old in a white tracksuit, says: “Kids round here have been drinking, smoking dope, taking ecstasy and having sex since they were 13 or 14. By the time they reach my age they’ve done everything. The combination of booze, drugs and the boredom of living around here screws young people up so much that they think killing themselves will be exciting.”
“We know young people can get things out of proportion,” says Anne Parry, chairwoman of the charity Papyrus which aims to prevent teenage suicide. “They feel things more passionately and they are more impulsive and that can be dangerous. They don’t always associate suicide with being dead for ever.” Papyrus is run by people who have lost children to suicide, who know first-hand the devastation that it brings.
“Suicide is always shocking,” says Parry. “But it is a fact of life. It’s no good thinking this won’t happen in your family. Sadly, it does. No family is immune. As a society we have to ask ourselves: is there enough support around this young person? What can we all do to stop this?”
What makes a teenager turn to suicide? There are no easy answers and cases vary – one youngster might kill himself apparently out of the blue while another talks about it obsessively for months beforehand. But there are common factors.
“A suicidal teenager feels hopeless. They often feel no one cares about them, perhaps even that it would be better for everybody if they weren’t there. If a young person is feeling suicidal they must confront that head-on and seek help.”
If the right sort of help is not on hand, teenagers might be encouraged further towards despair and death. There are numerous internet sites where youngsters discuss methods and attempts at suicide – which are now to be part of a government review of safety on the web – to be met with comments like: “You want to be dead but ur just scared of the process that gets u there. It’s normal.”
Even the general social networking sites like Bebo – which millions of British teenagers use – can play a part.
Three of the Bridgend suicides – Zachary Barnes, Liam Clarke and Natasha Randall – all shared friends on Bebo. Randall posted a message to Liam following his death whose almost jokey tone reflects the slight unreality that often attaches to online behaviour: “RIP Clarky boy!! gonna miss ya! allways remember the good times! love ya x”. Randall’s site – perhaps typical of many teenagers’ – featured sex quizzes and pictures of herself in revealing outfits.
Online “memorials”, eerily reminiscent of the flowers and cards left at roadside accident sites by friends and strangers alike, are now commonplace. Randall’s suicide attracted hundreds of comments before her profile was taken down on Wednesday, most of which made reference to her looks and praised her. Even the negative comments alluded to the attention she was receiving after her death. “Chrissie” wrote: “R.I.P Like. . . But why?. . . Isit Tru She Wanted More Bebo Views? Hope Your Lookin Down On Your Family & Friends. They Must Be In Peices Because Of Youu. . . No Need Too Do Some-thin Soo Selfish.”
It’s too simple to blame the internet for a phenomenon that, according to Loren Coleman, author of the book Suicide Clusters, has ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries and is often linked to complex social factors. In the depression of the 1930s, he points out, Americans blamed comic books for suicides plainly linked to economic deprivation. Today, says Coleman, “it’s not video games, it’s not the media, it’s not television. It’s part of the human condition”.
It’s nothing new, he claims: “Sigmund Freud held a conference on youth suicide clusters in the 1920s.” When Coleman published his book in 1987, nobody believed they were a phenomenon. Now, he says, it’s a no-brainer. “The particulars are a small geographical area, similar ages and backgrounds and similar method. All these kids died by hanging. That’s a method that takes some thought and it’s very painful. It’s almost certainly because they heard about it and chose it in a deliberate fashion.
“People find it easier to accept the idea in families, like the Hemingway family, where five people chose suicide. Well, these youths are like an extended family. If you’re vulnerable and desperate, you’re easily affected by models. You think: if they figured suicide was their option, maybe I should.”
It is an unpalatable but undeniable fact that death attracts attention. “Reality TV means young people are constantly bombarded with instant fame and instant success. A young person in a deprived area sees this and it’s psychologically destructive. They think: if I’m a nobody butI commit suicide, I’ll be a somebody. I’ll get my photo in the papers, I’ll have a memorial on the internet. How can I be a celebrity? Well, if I don’t get onto Big Brother, an alternative is death. My friends are doing it.”
Dr Arthur Cassidy, the social psychologist, set up a mobile suicide prevention unit in Co Armagh after a suicide cluster in the area claimed three boys in the space of a month last summer. He takes his converted caravan to where young people gather and he and his team make themselves available to the alienated young people who feel trapped with no future beyond their immediate grim surroundings.
“They don’t see Samaritans posters or they feel that that’s for adults,” he explains. “So we go to them. When their minds are in that sort of turmoil they need to talk about it in confidence. We try to break down the negative thought patterns in which death is an option and replace them with a learned optimism.”
Teenagers are trying out different identities, looking for role models, he adds. So they are easily influenced by self-harm-ing celebrities in the tabloid newspapers and stories of suicide: “The media can romanti-cise death. There are music and films which glorify suicide. A heavy-metaller who writes suicidal lyrics can appeal to them; their own negative self-concept is consistent with what they read about these musicians who have negative life experiences, are addicted to drugs and so on.”
There used to be five youth focus groups in Bridgend, where teenagers could turn for counselling, but funding was withdrawn and now there is only one. “Bridgend has poverty, unemployment, it’s an old mining town . . . the osmosis of depression, the groundlessness, has leaked through to the youth. What is there for young people if they stay in that community? What sense of hope has been lost?” says Coleman.
“People forget that suicide is about pain. It’s about escaping from pain, not ending your life. So the only way we can help young people is to talk to them about that pain. And it’s up to us to say that yes, there are some bad parts of life that we all go through, but life is really pretty wonderful.” Additional reporting: Nic North and Roger Waite
If you are concerned for a young person you know, call Papyrus’s helpline on 0870 170 4000
Click to view image: '145606-teenage_suicide_385_272598a.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|