Bridgend, The South Wales Axis Of Suicide

Caroline Davies
Bridgend, the south Wales town thrust into the spotlight after 13 of its young people killed themselves in the past year, is part of a Welsh valleys axis with higher than average levels of suicide, particularly among young men, it has emerged.

Statistics show that Merthyr Tydfil and the Rhondda, Cynon and Taff valleys are also battling with a problem that has, so far, defeated experts. And as police review the spate of recent deaths in Bridgend, The Observer can reveal that far from being an isolated pocket, the rash of suicides has been a concern in the area for some time.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 20 people - the vast majority of them young men - took their lives in the Bridgend area in 2006, while Merthyr Tydfil had 10 suicides and the Rhondda, Cynon and Taff 18. The latest available figures show that the combined area has 9.3 suicides per 100,000 people per year, compared with 8.3 for the rest of Wales.

As detectives look at possible links between the 13 deaths, the most recent being that of a 17-year-old girl, Natasha Randall, found hanged at her home in Blaengarw 10 days ago, a special task force of local agencies, including the police, is questioning speculation that the deaths may be linked to internet social networking sites.

The area falls under the jurisdiction of Bridgend and Glamorgan Valleys coroner Philip Walters. He said: 'I think people are looking for something that isn't there. As far as I can see there is no internet link. But, bear in mind I have concluded only four of the 13 inquests. There are nine still outstanding where I am waiting for toxicology reports.

'The thing that bothers me most about all of these suicides is that you look at each one as an individual, and you cannot get to the bottom of why. The vast majority are men under 30,' he said. 'I really do think we need a national suicide strategy.'

Walters has been so concerned about the increasing number that last year he issued a statement admitting that it was 'quite a high percentage and it seems to be higher in the south Wales valleys than in other parts of Wales'.

Bridgend's Labour MP, Madeleine Moon, said: 'I've been concerned about this for four years. I don't think it can be laid at the door of social deprivation. In all honesty Bridgend is not socially deprived. Perhaps one of the problems is young people need to raise their levels of aspiration.

'I've got two towns and lots of villages. They are very close communities in which everyone knows everyone else. People don't like to move 500 yards to the next village because their whole identity is around the village their families grew up in.

'But there is a downside. I was speaking to a group of girls recently and they were saying it could be claustrophobic. Everything that happens to you, everyone else knows about it, so it can be harder to deal with. You feel much more exposed. So, if you have a relationship break-up it's the gossip of the village. If something happens in your life, everyone knows about it. So there is pressure there.

'I don't know that the internet sites have had any major impact on what's been happening. What concerns me much more is that you have got a situation where all of these suicides have affected lots of young people. They know about them. And young people communicate differently, with texting and emails. That is not how you deal with emotional problems. I think many young people are not used to communicating emotions, actually talking one-to-one about them.'

Dr Jonathan Scourfield, senior lecturer at Cardiff University's school for social sciences, who has conducted research relating to suicides in Wales, said: 'Most suicides are complex. I think cultural and social beliefs are very influential factors. By that I mean if a relationship breaks down, or there is loss of employment, or terrible debts, suicide only becomes an appropriate response because it makes social sense. They have probably heard of other cases where people have killed themselves in those circumstances, so they think "well, that's what you do".

'That's where the copycat theory does have relevance - not that young people are goading each other on via websites - but in a broader sense. The more stories that appear about young people having killed themselves in your area, the more it might appear to you to be a reasonable response to a particular kind of crisis. It's about the culture of suicide.'

A police spokesman said: 'To date there is no evidence of a suicide pact and that theory did not come from the police. At this stage, we have not established any link that is common to all.'

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