A Welsh Teen-Suicide Epidemic

The string of deaths began with Dale Crole, 18. He hanged himself at an abandoned warehouse on Jan. 5, 2007. His friend David Dilling, 19, took police to the scene. Dilling died the same way a few weeks later, in mid-February. A week later the boys' friend Thomas Davies, 20, hanged himself in a local park. After two months' respite another local youth, 21-year-old Alan Price, was found dead of similar causes. In June his friend Leigh Jenkins, 22, hanged himself in another friend's bedroom. Another of Crole's friends, Liam Clarke, 20, died the same way in a park two days after Christmas. An acquaintance of his, Gareth Morgan, 27, hanged himself at home on the anniversary of Crole's death.

The people of Bridgend are baffled and scared. Since the start of 2007, a total of 17 young people in and around the played-out South Wales coal town--most of them teenagers--have killed themselves by hanging. Few townspeople had any idea at first that the deaths were something out of the ordinary. The suicide rate in Wales is nearly twice that of the United Kingdom as a whole, and sinkholes of poverty like Bridgend tend to be even worse. In the town and its surrounding valleys, an area with a total population of some 130,000, the suicide rate among males 15-24 over the past decade has been 43 per 100,000, more than double the Welsh rate of 19 per 100,000. But Bridgend has never suffered so many suicides in such quick succession--particularly among so many who were friends or acquaintances. And no one knows why it's happening now.

The deaths have accelerated in recent weeks. Each new suicide has inspired another memorial page on popular social-networking Web sites like Bebo. Natasha Randall, 17, posted a cheery tribute on Liam Clarke's memorial page on Jan. 15: "RIP Clarky boy!! gonna miss ya! Always remember the gd times!" Two days later she hanged herself. And that was another odd thing: doctors say women rarely ever commit suicide that way; they're far more likely to take pills or slit their wrists. Even so, the next day one of Randall's girlfriends tried to hang herself; luckily found by her father, who cut her down in time to save her life. A third young woman, 18-year-old Angeline Fuller, did hang herself two weeks later. Then came the deadliest five days yet: Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, hanged himself on Feb. 15, followed a few hours later by his 20-year-old cousin and neighbor, Kelly Stephenson, an accomplished athlete. Four days later their 16-year-old neighbor Jenna Parry, a trainee hairdresser, who was found hanging from a tree near her home on the city's outskirts.

Britain's tabloids went wild, with Fleet Street headlines like DEATH VALLEYS and SUICIDE TOWN and free-floating speculation of an Internet-spawned suicide pact. Local officials responded with righteous fury, denouncing the press for its insensitivity and suggesting that the barrage of media attention had encouraged more suicide attempts. "What's the link since Natasha Randall's death?" said assistant chief constable David Morris at a press conference. "It is you--the media!" Some townspeople viewed the situation differently. "I don't think they should blame the media," says Bridgend resident Tracy Roberts. "The media have at least highlighted the problem that they're not putting the services into these dead-end towns where we have to live." Her 19-year-old son, Anthony Martin, hanged himself in Bridgend last April, although he evidently had no ties to the other victims. Arthur Cassidy, a social-psychology professor who runs a youth-suicide intervention group in Belfast, agrees that the deaths aren't the tabloids' fault. "We have no evidence that newspapers influence suicidal behavior," he says. "Young people don't read newspapers. They get their news on the Internet."

The Internet is a recurring theme in the Bridgend hangings. Most and possibly all of the victims were members of the Bebo networking site, and many of them posted messages on the public memorial pages of those who preceded them in suicide. "I'm sure they all knew each other," says Ferdinand, 14, who lives near the 17th victim's house. (The boy's last name is withheld at his father's request.) "I knew six of them myself," the boy says. "I've been on some of their personal pages on Bebo, and they were talking about 'I don't think I can cope with it,' and 'I'm going to end it.' I didn't think they'd really do it." His friend George adds, "It's like it's the fashion or something."

According to Frederick and other kids in the area, local cops are visiting the homes of young people who have posted possibly suicidal messages on Bebo, and the site has been taking down those postings. Bebo spokesman Sam Evans, replying by e-mail to NEWSWEEK's queries, confirmed that Bebo does remove profile or memorial pages of deceased persons upon requests by family members or law enforcement. "Bebo is working with South Wales police to assist with the ongoing investigation in any way it can," says Evans.

Police are still looking into the deaths, Morris said last week. He was emphatic on one point in particular: "I would like to put to bed at this moment any suggestion that we are investigating suicide pacts or suicide Internet links." Tabloid hype aside, Professor Cassidy urges special attention to suggestions that online connection is worth a close look. He cites research demonstrating that "suicide clusters" like the one in Bridgend nearly always result from some sort of "conscious form of agreement" among the victims--even if they have only the loosest personal connections to one another, as is common on social-network sites.

Others in the prevention field agree that suicide can spread like a virus over the Internet. "These social-networking sites, especially ones that deal with young people, have a responsibility to police their sites that they're not always fulfilling," says Paul Kelly of Papyrus, a teen-suicide prevention group in the United Kingdom. "There is a danger of glorifying young people who have taken their own lives."

Still, there are Internet operators who take such fears seriously. The obituary Web site GoneTooSoon.co.uk removed all tributes to the Bridgend victims last week, replacing them with its apologies and an explanation. The site's founder, Terry George, says he wants to avoid any possibility of glamorizing the deaths. "If you commit suicide in the hope you'll be well-known afterwards, then it won't happen with us," he says. "We won't allow it. Something has to be done to stop these people taking their own lives." Bebo's approach has been less dogmatic. As recently as last Wednesday, Feb. 27, the site included memorial pages for Nathaniel Pritchard and Jenna Parry, as well as a group page called Bridgend Deaths with hundreds of members, most of them young people. Their commentary ranged from the sentimental ("Hope you're all happy up there") to the crude.

A shocking array of resources for would-be suicides is readily available on the Web. Some sites promote euthanasia for the elderly or terminally ill, while others are explicitly aimed at troubled young people. One such site, registered to an address in Amsterdam, hosts a discussion on the most effective way for a minor to commit suicide, with posts ranging from crude and humorous to instructive and practical. The site's moderator, who portrays himself as a defender of "freedom of speech on the subject of suicide," nevertheless admits he has no qualifications, medical or otherwise, for providing advice to would-be suicides. "I don't think 'psychological professionals' are the only ones who should deal with the subject," he told NEWSWEEK via e-mail.

Bridgend's people could tell him a few things about the pain and damage that suicide inflicts on the victim's survivors. Local authorities are promising to unveil a "suicide action plan" soon, and legislators in Wales have declared the goal of reducing suicides by 10 percent there this year. At this point, though, the most visible response to the Bridgend epidemic has come from volunteer groups such as the Samaritans, a British group that specializes in suicide counseling and runs hotlines at 200 branches across the country. The Bridgend chapter alone takes 30,000 calls a year. At night the group's volunteers fan out into the streets, waging a youth-oriented campaign with posters declaring I FEEL LIKE #!*%. More needs to be done, says Bridgend branch director Darren Matthews; some local schools aren't even discussing the problem with their students.

Such silence can be fatal. Early on the morning of Feb. 19 the body of the 17th victim, Jenna Parry, was found hanging from a leafless little tree at the edge of a village common, a popular gathering place for local kids who call it the Snake Pit. Several homes can be seen a couple hundred yards away, across a field. The branch she used was barely high enough to keep her feet off the ground. Last week the tree was festooned with dozens of messages, flowers and butterfly knickknacks, including a purple wind chime of glass butterflies. (Friends and family sometimes called her Butterfly). "Save me a place with you," said one unsigned note. Similar thoughts were posted on Parry's RIP page on Bebo. "Your In A Better Place Now!" wrote a friend with the online name Sexyyjodi. "i'll See You Soon! LoveYouuSooMuchhh!!" Parry's friends can only wonder why their love failed to save her life and why others seem open to the same tragic fate.