A network of “suicide gurus” who use the internet to advise people how to kill themselves has been exposed.
They are blamed for prompting depressed and vulnerable youngsters to take their own lives.
One, an American satanist who boasts of writing a guide to the subject, says: “What’s the problem with ending your life via suicide?”
Another is a “pro-choice” Dutch writer whose website includes detailed accounts of dozens of suicide methods.
Campaigners have uncovered 29 “internet suicides” in Britain since 2001, including two new cases reported this weekend.
The findings follow the cluster of suicides among young people in Bridgend, where a coroner is now re-examining nine deaths on top of 16 suspected suicides under investigation. It emerged on Friday that another two young people from the Welsh town had been found hanged. Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, and his cousin Kelly Stephenson, 20, were both members of a social networking Âwebsite.
Among the most notorious suicide websites, which The Sunday Telegraph has decided not to name to avoid encouraging their use, are two discussion forums, or “chatrooms”, in which users offer advice on how to end one’s life.
In some cases, people with suicidal feelings have been encouraged to take their own lives rather than to seek professional advice.
In a posting on one of the sites last week, a desperate user wanting to know how to hang himself was directed, by another correspondent, to a website containing drawings of knots and nooses.
Internet service providers and search engines like Google and Yahoo say they cannot block these websites and forums unless they are made illegal by the Government.
One of the most notorious figures on the internet suicide scene is Nagasiva Yronwode, a self-confessed satanist who runs a shop selling occult books and charms in the small Californian town of Forestville, north of San Francisco.
Yronwode, 46, describes himself as the “outreach director” for an extremist cult called the Church of Euthanasia, which advocates suicide as a means of saving the world from the effects of overpopulation.
Writing under the name Boboroshi, he has edited a suicide guide, which details various methods. Yronwode’s own website contains links to online suicide discussion boards and forums.
He told this newspaper: “The guide is there to make it easier for people who opt for suicide to carry it out. The purpose of my information is empowerment for competent human beings who have an interest in ending their lives. What’s the problem with that?
“I haven’t seen any evidence that any person has acted as a result of reading the guide. But, of course, people who have an interest in ending their lives may well seek out information that relates to suicide and in some cases that leads them to end their lives.”
Yronwode rejected arguments that he was responsible for the deaths of suicide victims.
“I’m not the protector of these troubled youths,” he said. “Their parents are the people who made them troubled. They are responsible for them. They should look at their living conditions, genetic features and local conditions which might lead them to take their own lives. Everything else is a Âdistraction.”
Another person closely linked to the suicide discussion forums is Karin Spaink, 50, a Dutch former schoolteacher who became a writer in 1986 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Spaink is an advocate of the right to die and has published on her website a manual detailing 41 ways of committing suicide. The manual ends with the lyrics to the song Suicide is Painless, which featured in the 1970 film M*A*S*H.
The best-known of the suicide chatÂrooms is understood to have been founded more than 10 years ago by a British man, originally from Newcastle upon Tyne. At one stage he was apparently operating from a Newcastle University email address. However, there is now no trace of him.
Calle Dybedahl, a 38-year-old Swedish IT worker, later took over as editor of the site. On his personal website, Dybedahl describes himself as a witch and a member of a coven and says he has had psychiatric treatment for depression.
Of the suicide discussion forum, he says: “The most basic difference in opinion between me and those who have mailed me, telling me I’m a monster, seems to be that they think that death is an inherently bad thing, while I don’t.”
He now says he has distanced himself from the site, but defends it as “socially useful”.
Dybedahl, Spaink and Yronwode deny inciting or encouraging individuals to take their own lives, but groups that work to help prevent youth suicides, such as Papyrus, a Lancashire-based charity, say their writing provides vulnerable people with instant access to graphic ways of committing suicide.
Paul Kelly, co-founder of Papyrus, whose 18-year-old son Simon killed himself after visiting a suicide website, said: “There is a growing number of parents out there who can say the internet has played a role in the deaths of their children.
“The internet offers factual advice which is accessible within seconds. This is particularly dangerous with young people, who often work on impulse.
“People like Spaink and Yronwode are completely irresponsible. They don’t consider the consequences of their actions.”
Ivan Lewis, the Health Minister, said: “I share public concern at the impact of the internet on vulnerable people. Working with organisations like Samaritans and internet service providers, we need to consider whether there is more we can do together to protect them.”
In one new case uncovered by Papyrus, a girl of 13 took her own life in December after spending hours looking at websites that had details of how to commit suicide.
Her mother said she did not know that her daughter was going through such distress, or about the websites. She said: “We know now that the previous evening she accessed ‘how to suicide’ sites, and we believe that this aided her in her actions.”
In another new case, a man of 36 killed himself last year after apparently following online advice. In two further new cases, young people tried to kill themselves but failed, one ending up brain-damaged and in need of 24-hour care.
Papyrus is calling for the 1961 Suicide Act, which outlaws the promotion of suicide, to be updated to ban its promotion on websites, in line with other countries including Japan and Australia.
No one has ever been successfully prosecuted in Britain for inciting someone online to take their own life. The Ministry of Justice said it would be difficult to frame a law to ban suicide websites without also criminalising counselling services or works of fiction.
A spokeswoman said: “The mere publication on the internet of material that assists and/or encourages suicide would not of itself be an offence of assisting suicide, because there needs to be a causative link with an actual or attempted suicide. But sites which actively encourage suicide might be committing the offence of attempting to assist Âsuicide.”
The signs to watch for and where to turn
Look out for signs of depression in teenagers
Warning signs include being withdrawn and distant
Try to communicate and make them feel comfortable by discussing their concerns
Encourage troubled teenagers to see a GP or counsellor; offer to take them
Listen to what they tell you and do not be judgmental
Tell them that you love them no matter what and give them a hug
If they won’t talk to you, encourage them to talk to a friend or sibling
If they are living away from home, go and see them
Papyrus 0870 170 4000, www.papyrus-uk.org
Samaritans Tel: 08457 909090, www.samaritans.org