“You’re not going there to commit suicide are you?” the inspector asks after glancing at my train ticket to Bridgend. No, this wasn’t the caring side of the railways’ staff but the inspector’s attempt at a joke. “It’s where people go to do it isn’t it? But you look OK and you’ve got a return ticket,” he adds with a smirk. The exchange reflects the tragic series of events that have befallen the former south Wales coal mining town of 20,000 people over the past year. Bridgend has now become the watchword for suicide, and specifically the suicide of young people.
In April, a 19-year-old man from the town hanged himself. He was the 19th person under the age of 27 from Bridgend county to take their own life since the start of 2007. A 23-year-old man from the area who died in hospital last month is thought to be the 20th.
The suicides didn’t receive any attention outside the local area until six months ago when a single news report suggested there were links between the deaths and an internet suicide cult. As the number of young people taking their lives continued to rise, the national and even international media began to sit up and take notice.
At the height of the media attention in February, headlines in the national newspapers were proclaiming Bridgend to be a “Death Town”, while TV news crews from all over the world filmed in the streets, portraying the place and its people as desperate.
Much of the coverage was criticised as inaccurate, insensitive, unfair and fuelling the problem. For the social care sector, the media’s coverage of both mental health issues and young people was questioned.
The importance of the issues prompted the Press Complaints Commission to hold a debate in the town this month about the coverage. It offered a forum for local people to give their views to local MP Madeleine Moon, Press Complaints Commission chair Sir Christopher Meyer, the head of Ofcom Wales and a local newspaper editor.
The first to speak to the audience of several hundred at Bridgend Recreation Centre was the father of one of the suicide victims. He explained the impact the coverage had on his family. “My son died last May but the newspapers continued to print his photo with every suicide story. It caused us real heartache every time we saw it. My daughter has needed counselling.”
Bridgend assembly member Carwyn Jones said the most “irresponsible” coverage was from the national media. “The only reason this story got legs was because there was some reported connection to the internet. Although the police said there wasn’t any link, some parts of the media continued to cover the story in that way. What troubles me is that we had a story that ran and ran even though the basis of it wasn’t true.”
Pastor Roy Lewis, of Bridgend’s Brackla Tabernacle Church, said the press hadn’t respected the sensitive nature of the events. “Many feel their grief was heightened by the unnecessary press reporting and that the wishes of the families were largely ignored.”
Craig Lambourne, former Bridgend youth mayor, said: “Young people were being harassed by the media at the time of the suicides. Young people were being filmed going for counselling sessions and needed more protection.”
Lyn James, manager of the Solid Rock youth centre, said young people now have a “complete distrust” of the press. “We’re driving them to use the internet and social networking websites because they feel like they have control of what goes on there.”
David Thomas, a registered psychiatric nurse, said the media attention had “besmirched” the name of Bridgend. “If research was done in other towns and communities with the same economic factors the figures would be the same.”
Some reports, repeated by the panel members, said suicide rates in Wales are 35% higher than England, but Sarah Watkins, a senior medical officer at the assembly, said suggestions that Wales has a particular problem were unfounded. Office of National Statistics figures show Bridgend has a similar suicide rate as the rest of Wales, she added. “It does have a higher rate for those aged 15-29 but not inordinately so. It is crucial that the people of Bridgend know exactly where they are.”
Many at the meeting reflected on the failure of much of the coverage to look at the social problems the town and young people faced that could have contributed to the deaths.
One local mother and former teacher said: “A lot of people are blaming the internet but we’re not looking deeper. The breakdown of relationships, the lack of self-esteem among our young people and problems with drugs and alcohol are all issues.”
Alcohol and drugs
Dominic, a volunteer at mental health charity Hafal, said there was a need for more mental health well-being promotion in Bridgend. “There was a lack of funds for an event to mark World Mental Health day last year in Bridgend.
“If you go into the town centre on a Friday or Saturday night you’ll find that water is more expensive than alcohol. Young people in the community think it is good to be drunk. Alcohol and drugs have fuelled these suicides and facilities for this in Bridgend leave a lot to be desired.”
Madeleine Moon said she felt some of the reports had contributed to the more recent deaths. “A Council of Europe report on the Bridgend suicides said many youngsters took this as a model to copy, most recently in Ghent, Belgium. The media hype presents suicide as a glamorous act.”
This sentiment is echoed by Tony Garthwaite, former director of social services at Bridgend and now the council’s executive director for change.
He says: “When young people see others taking their lives, who’s there to tell them that’s not on? We’re [the agencies] trying to say to young people that suicide is not an acceptable option.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m whingeing and we realise it is a major story but I would like people to reflect on the issues and the consequences.
“Is every Bridgend suicide going to be headline news from now on? Because there will be more, that’s for certain.”
The multi-agency Bridgend Local Service Board – similar to local area agreements in England – has been working for a year on drawing up a suicide prevention strategy, thought to be the first one of its kind in Wales.
The strategy will outline what agencies need to do to help provide people with the support they need when facing difficulties in their lives.
It will target schools, colleges and youth groups, offering advice on the counselling agencies available for anyone feeling down. And it will aim to equip parents to notice signs such as sudden changes of mood which can be a precursor to self-harm.
National Lottery funding of £2m has been provided to implement the strategy. It will help train public sector workers in effective suicide prevention techniques, train 13,000 young people in peer support and develop a website and telephone information and advice service about suicide.
● Bridgend has a population of 130,000. It ranks 12th out of 22 areas for unemployment in Wales but seventh in terms of the number of people with long-term health problems.
● According to the Office of National Statistics, there were three suicides of young people aged 15-30 in 2004-5 in the Bridgend area. In 2006 there were a further three.
● Unofficial figures suggest 20 young people have committed suicide in the area in the past 18 months, the majority young men.
● At 44 per 100,000 Bridgend has the highest rate of suicide among men aged 15 to 24, closely followed by Neath, Port Talbot and Denbighshire.
● There are about 300 suicides in Wales a year (21 per 100,000 of the male population), the highest of the four home nations.
This article appears in the 12 June issue of Community Care magazine under the headline: ‘Why Bridgend?’