Bridgend’s suicides: Theories and facts

In this article, I do not for a minute wish to dismiss the suicides of those people as unimportant; in my view, a single suicide is one too many. I would, however, like to point out that public reactions and media handling of the issue are producing a patronising and blinkered vision of young people, and highlights the ignorance of mental health problems and suicide in the UK.

The suicide cult explanation doesnÂ’t seem to ring true. A brief survey of comments on the Daily Mail website gives an idea of the unrestrained and frankly unbelievable theorising going on. Some posters have hysterically suggested that high levels of radiation in teenagersÂ’ bedrooms in the area, or perhaps chemicals contained in acne cream, were affecting the brains of the people who took their lives. The majority allude to some sort of secret cult glamorising suicide operating, and most blame the internet as the proliferator of such ideas. In fact, there have been several calls for networking sites to be banned altogether.

There are a number of issues with this. Firstly, there is an assumption that there is a very high risk of young people being indiscriminately impressed by material online. Nowhere in the debate has anyone considered that the majority of young people may read something and interpret it independently. Some young people may, of course, take these ideas onboard, which is very sad. Then again, if ideas glorifying suicide were not being published on the internet, is it inconceivable that young people would simply communicate their thoughts on the subject in other ways; by email, by phone, by letter or perhaps in person? Banning use of social networking sites will not address the deeper motives behind this loss of life.

The same goes for the media coverage of the suicides. There have been plenty of articles in the national press covering the Bridgend suicides, but the media cannot be blamed for “promoting suicide”, although the sensitivity of some newspapers’ handling of the issue leaves much to be desired. The point has also been made that all of the young people who committed suicide used online networking sites, and so this must be the common cause of their deaths; but with 62,000,000 people on Facebook alone, is it unusual for young people, particularly within the same area, to be using the same few sites?

Essentially, it is misguided to blame the internet for “making” young people take their own lives, because this view assumes that young people are much more impressionable than they are. True, some of the material about suicide online may be a factor in some suicides, but then it is just one factor. Claims that internet sites and the media have made young people believe that suicide is now “an acceptable alternative” are ridiculously oversimplified. It takes deep depression, anxiety and loneliness to reach the psychological lows that allow someone to commit suicide, according to the mental health charity Mind. Online chatter alone cannot convince people to kill themselves, and a few internet sites cannot instantly override the human instinct for self-preservation. It is belittling and insulting to the feelings of those who took their own lives to suggest that this was the key cause of their deaths.

It also needs to be recognised that the information regarding the suicides is being given to the public within a news frame; i.e. once when a story is reported that is similar to another, the two are carelessly lumped together, often regardless of their actual relation. From this, we get the impression that suicide in Bridgend has increased dramatically in a short space of time. Seventeen suicides in a year and a half in a small town in South Wales give the impression that unusual is happening, but Welsh Assembly member Carwyn Jones has advised caution with the statistics:

’We are talking about suicides in a county of more than 130,000 people, not just the town of BridgendÂ….And it’s worth emphasising that Bridgend is not way, way ahead of others,’ he is quoted in last weekendÂ’s Observer.

JonesÂ’ comment raises the issue of comparisons. Reports about the suicides have given us the facts, yes, but nothing to compare them to. According to the National Statistics Office, there were 5,554 suicides in people aged 15 and over in the UK in 2006, with a national average of 12 per 100,000. So in Bridgend, with a population of 130,000, the figure of 17 people within a year and a half does not actually exceed the average. The unhappy fact is that suicide is much higher in general than many people think, demonstrated by the reaction to the news in Bridgend.

Some of the comments on the Daily Mail (ignoring the wild conspiracy theories) do ring true, even though knowledge of the figures is a little skewed. That suicide in Bridgend is a huge and sudden phenomenon is perhaps not as accurate as thought. That something needs to be done to address the causes of suicide, depression and mental illness across the UK is certainly very true.

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