The body of a 16-year-old girl has been found hanged in picturesque woods near Bridgend. It is the 17th such suicide by a young person from the area in the past year.
Jenna Parry, who lived in the village of Cefn Cribwr, was discovered by a man walking his dog across a woodland area of the village common, about five miles from the small South Wales town. It is thought she was a close friend of at least one other victim.
A total of 17 people aged between 15 and 27 and living in and around Bridgend have hanged themselves since January 2007. Local police, who have dismissed fears of a suicide cult, continue to deny any connection between the deaths.
At least ten of the victims seem to have been known to each other, however, with several having friendship links on Bebo, a social networking site. After their deaths the profiles of many of the victims have quickly been transformed into virtual shrines with condolences and messages such as “sleep tight” and “RIP”.
Some commentators have suggested the website allows the glorification of the deaths, promoting copycat suicides.
It was announced tonight that the Welsh Assembly is launching a suicide prevention campaign. The parents of Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, the youngest victim, criticised speculation and intense media coverage of the deaths.
Sharon Pritchard and her husband, Vincent, appealed for calm. “We have lost a son, and media coverage made a difficult time unbearable,” she said. “We did not wish to speak to the media. Not just for ourselves but for other families. We feel that the national coverage of recent suicides may have put ideas into Nathaniel’s head.
“We never believed his death was linked to the other deaths. It certainly has nothing to do with living in Bridgend — Bridgend is a nice place to live.”
This weekend the football team of Nathaniel’s cousin Kelly Stephenson, 20, held a minute’s silence for the young woman, who took her own life just hours after hearing that he had hanged himself. The two lived a few doors from each other in Bridgend.
Within minutes of their deaths being discovered, both of their pages on Bebo had been inundated with posts and tributes.
Alan Briscoe, of the mental health charity Mind Cymru, said: “Every suicide that happens in Bridgend brings it closer to those other troubled young people in that area.
“Obviously something very serious is happening in Bridgend. There’s a local response to that.”
Even before the latest deaths, suicide rates among men in Wales were the highest in the UK. In Bridgend, three 15 to 24-year-old men committed suicide on average every year between 1996 and 2006.
South Wales Police confirmed the latest suicide, but refused to accept that the internet or any agreements or pacts linked the deaths.
Assistant Chief Constable Dave Morris said: “A number had access to social networking sites but there’s no suggestion that anybody used these sites as a means to take their lives. They were all young people with big issues. There are a constellation of factors influencing these young people as individuals. Young people tell us that the media coverage is starting to contribute to those pressures.”
He admitted that there had been a cluster of suicides in Bridgend but pointed out that similar patterns had occurred in other countries, including Ireland and the United States, in the past.
The suicides have prompted international media interest, but also desperate activity by the local authorities. The Welsh Assembly, which wants a 10 per cent reduction in suicides by 2012, announced today that it was working on a national suicide prevention initiative. Plans for a national school-based counselling service are going to be published in the spring.
Edwina Hart, Health Minister in the Welsh Assembly, said: “I have also agreed that there will be some early pilot projects in suicide prevention work in those areas with the highest suicide rates and am aware that the rates vary across Wales and are not associated with one area.
“This is a national problem and not solely in one local authority area, so the projects will be in different parts of Wales.”
Suicides in Bridgend since January 2007
Dale Crole, 18; David Dilling, 19; Thomas Davies, 20; Zachery Barnes, 17; Gareth Morgan, 27; James Knight, 26; Jason Williams, 21; Andrew Ob Neill, 19; Leigh Jenkins, 22; Liam Clarke, 20; Alan Price, 21; Luke Goodridge, 20; Natasha Randall, 17; Angie Fuller, 18; Kelly Stephenson, 20; Nathaniel Pritchard, 15; Jenna Parry, 16