Suspected suicides in Bridgend area reach 17 as schoolgirl found hanged
· Links to social networking websites ruled out
· Parents of boy who died blame coverage in media
The Guardian, Wednesday February 20 2008
A 16-year-old schoolgirl was found hanged yesterday, bringing to 17 the number of apparent suicides among youngsters in the Bridgend area since the beginning of last year.
South Wales police said Jenna Parry was discovered at 7.45am in woods near her home at Cefn Cribbwr, a small village north-west of the town.
Her death is the latest in a spate which has made Bridgend the focus of national scrutiny and the centre of a police investigation to discover possible links between the suicides. Speculation originally centred on the internet and social networking websites but police and grieving relatives moved yesterday to quash rumours of such links.
The parents of 15-year-old Nathaniel Pritchard, who apparently killed himself last week, went further and blamed their son's death on press coverage. Nathaniel's mother, Sharon, said: "It has glamorised ways of taking your life as a way of getting attention without fully realising the tragic consequences."
Last week, two cousins died within two days of each other and five people aged between 15 and 20 have died in the area this year.
"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," said assistant chief constable Dave Morris, who is leading an investigation into the deaths. "I would like to put to bed any suggestion within the media that we are investigating suicide pacts or suicide internet links. They were all young people with big issues. There are a constellation of factors influencing these young people." These included relationship break-ups, friendship issues and family problems, he said.
Philip Walters, the coroner for Bridgend and Glamorgan Valleys, said he was convinced there was "not one great conspiracy" linking the 17 deaths, although he said there was clear evidence that the first three suicides and two subsequent pairs were linked by the victims knowing each other. "Apart from the three groupings, there are no links that I can see," he said. "Parts of the media have claimed there is an internet connection but there has been no evidence of that apart from internet tributes after the deaths."
The number of suicides in the last 12 months is above average for the area. In Bridgend, three men aged between 15 and 24 committed suicide on average every year between 1996 and 2006. Last year there were at least nine.
"Media coverage put the idea into Nathaniel's head," said Sharon Pritchard. "We never believed his death was linked to other deaths and never believed there was an internet pact. We are certain it never had anything to do with living in Bridgend."
Nathaniel died in hospital after "harming himself" last week. His cousin Kelly Stephenson, 20, was found hanged hours later while on holiday in Kent.
The police also criticised reporting of the suicides and said Bridgend is becoming "stigmatised" by the coverage.
"We are speaking to young people in Bridgend and what we are getting from them is that the media is starting to contribute to their thoughts in terms of how they feel, pressures they are under," said Morris.
A friend of Jenna's, Daniel John, 20, said: "It has been an absolute shock. She was so bubbly and carefree. I can't imagine why she would take her own life."
The Welsh assembly yesterday announced plans for a suicide prevention strategy. It wants to reduce suicides in the principality by 10% over the next four years. Suicide rates among men in Wales are the highest in the UK and plans for a national school-based counselling service will be published this spring.
The assembly's health minister Edwina Hart 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."