The Welsh Suicide Contagion
INTERVIEW BY BRUNO BAYLEY, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK
Bridgend rose to international fame in 2008 when a 17-year-old girl, Natasha Randall, was found hanged shortly after the new year. The photogenic girl’s death grabbed the UK media’s attention long enough for them to realize that this case was in fact one of many in the foggy town. Natasha’s close friend Liam Clarke had killed himself a few weeks before her. In all, 23 young people had taken their own lives in the area over the course of a year and a half. Almost all had hanged themselves, some at home, others in parks or abandoned buildings.
We spoke to Darren Matthews, branch director of the Samaritans organization in Bridgend, about the rash of suicides in his town.
Vice: What the hell is going on out there?
Darren Matthews: Well, as far as the deaths that the newspapers picked up on and grouped together, it all started around January 2007. But this sort of death has always been occurring around here. In January 2007, an 18-year-old, Dale Crole, hanged himself in a derelict warehouse. In the months after that there were a number of other suicides, some of whom were known to Dale—they were friends of his. So that was a rash of male deaths occurring throughout 2007. Then, in January 2008, the first female died. That was Natasha Randall. After she was found, there seemed to be a quickening in the pace of the deaths in the area. The first newspaper headline came not long after. It read: “Suicide Cult.” At that point, the world media took notice.
Yeah, that would do it. How many people died in total?
The official death count was 23 for those who died in what the media decided was this “group of suicides,” but there were a number of deaths that went unreported in the area during that time. I think two or three more died, but they may have been a bit too old to fit into the story that the news wanted to tell, so they weren’t mentioned.
The papers went on about cults and suicide networks. Was that all bullshit? To what extent were these people linked to one another in reality?
According to the coroner and the police, there are no links between these deaths. But it is public knowledge that a number of these people knew each other. So it depends a great deal on what you mean by “linked.” There were people who were friends of those who died who then killed themselves. We know that some of those who died had shared flats together at certain points in their lives. Three boys who died had all lived on the same street. The youngest person to die was 15. He had tried to kill himself and ended up on a life-support machine. While he was in the hospital, his cousin, who was 20, killed herself. He died a few days later. They had lived a few doors apart.
Sounds pretty suspicious to me. But Bridgend has always had a high suicide rate, hasn’t it? Is there any explanation for that?
The whole of South Wales, the Valleys area, has a higher-than-average suicide rate—highest in the UK, in fact. If you’re looking for factors that explain it, it depends a lot on who you talk to. We know that in this area we have some of the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom. There are very high levels of unemployment and illness. So there are social and economic factors that do play a part in some deaths, but not necessarily in these deaths.
So what’s it all about? Why so many deaths in so little time in one small area?
There is nothing specific to Bridgend that can explain all these deaths. We offer the theory of contagion.
What is that, like contagious suicide?
No. We started talking about it in January, and at first people didn’t want to know. But by March people were coming on board. Contagion theory is sometimes known as the Werther Effect, named after Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Toward the end of the book, this character, Werther, takes his own life, but he does so in a specific way, wearing a costume of some sort. After the book was published back in the 1800s it was banned because people imitated Werther. Contagion theory is what we call it when one person in a community kills themselves, and it almost gives permission to others to do the same—or so it seems.
What is the media’s role in all this?
The media plays a big role in spreading the word through the community. That is why we recommend strict media guidelines to ensure events are reported in a responsible way. People don’t have to know a person for their suicide to affect them.
Well, if somebody becomes aware of another person’s problems, it can be dangerous. Say you have a person in the community who is in debt, and their debt leads to relationship troubles, and they decide to hang themselves. If the newspapers pick up on that and report it, that’s fine—if it is done right. If they go into too much detail about his circumstances and the method by which he died, it could make another man who is in debt and having relationship troubles, but has been just hanging on, think: “Wait, maybe there is no hope. Maybe this is what I am supposed to do.”
It might plant the seed.
I cannot say that the reports in the media caused further deaths. There is no evidence for that. But what I can say is that we know the reporting and the way the media behaved had a very negative affect on the community—especially with the use of photographs of those who died. The story was in the press almost every day. Imagine seeing photos of your deceased loved ones again and again on the front page. And then they print them again on the anniversary. We know that this had a really awful effect on the community and the relatives. Some of the headlines left a lot to be desired, like “Suicide Town.”
Not too classy.
And then there were things about death cults online and stuff. It caused a lot of anger around here. The town is still in shock.
What did you make of the repeated accusations of social-networking websites being responsible?
There is no evidence for any social-networking link. I mean, yes, a lot of those who died did have profiles on networking sites, but then again so do most youngsters and young adults across the UK. The other factor in encouraging people to think that online communities are linked to the deaths is the tendency for people to leave messages on the pages of those who have died. Now, to me that is no different than a book of condolence that someone’s grandmother might have signed. It’s just a way of offering respect.
What long-term effects have the suicides had on the people around there?
There are some positive effects, like how people are now talking openly about suicide. It was taboo here for a long time. It is a big problem that people in Wales, especially young men, do not talk about their problems. They see it as weak, which is wrong.