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Social network sites link to town's seven suicides

1-23-2008 United Kingdom:

Natasha Randall was 17, had a large circle of friends and was studying childcare when, without any indication that she was unhappy, she hanged herself in her bedroom.

Her death last Thursday was the latest in at least seven apparent copycat suicides in Bridgend, South Wales, that have alarmed parents, health authorities and police, who believe that they may be prompted by messages on social networking websites such as Bebo.

Within days two 15-year-old girls, both of whom had known Tasha, as she called herself, had also tried to take their lives. One cut her wrists and was later discharged from hospital into the care of her parents. The other tried to hang herself and spent two days on life support before showing signs of recovery. Police have since visited the families of 20 of Tasha’s friends, urging them to keep an eye on their daughters.

In the 12 months before Tasha’s death, six young men from Bridgend and the surrounding area had killed themselves. Most were known to each other. This month Tasha attended the funeral of 20-year-old Liam Clarke, who was found hanged in a local park the day after Boxing Day.

Tasha had left a tribute to Liam on his Bebo webpage. It said: “R.I.P. Clarky boy!! gonna miss ya! always remember the gd times! love ya x.”

After Tasha’s death police took her computer to try to find a reason for her suicide. They will also be looking for links to the other deaths.

Copycat suicides are a well-known phenomenon but in Bridgend the tributes left on websites such as Bebo appear to have had a significant impact. Friends have set up memorial pages where wellwishers have posted messages or bought virtual “tablets” in a remembrance wall. The 19 tablets on Tasha’s memorial page include the messages “RIP chick”, “Sleep Tight Princess” and “Sweet dreams, Angel”.

David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said that research had shown a connection between reports of suicide in the media and copycat deaths, and it was likely that discussions of suicide on websites would have a similar effect.

He said: “Young people are more likely to see and read items concerning suicide on the internet than they are in newspapers. One can extrapo-late from wider research on responses to newspaper reporting that a medium like Bebo will have an impact on suicidal behaviour in young people.”

South Wales Police fear that the reason could be simpler. One officer said: “They may think it’s cool to have a memorial website. It may even be a way of achieving prestige among their peer group.”

South Wales already had one of the worst suicide rates for young people. Tasha, who called herself “Wildchild”, was not the only one to spend hours each day on the internet in a world about which their parents knew little.

Even before she died a task force that includes represntatives of the NHS trust, school, police and local authority was investigating the high suicide rate. It is due to report in the next few weeks. Tegwyn Williams, the director of mental health services for Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust, said: “The key is to break down the stigma attached to suicide in the community so that people aren’t afraid to talk to someone if they feel depressed.”

Melanie Davies’s son, Thomas, was the third young person from the area to kill himself last year. Mrs Davies, 38, said: “One of his friends told me that they feel these kids seem to be copying each other . . . so many of them are hanging themselves.”

The friends who killed themselves

Dale Crole, 18, hanged himself at the Coney Beach funfair at Porthcawl, near Bridgend, January 2007
David Dilling, 19, a former classmate of Dale from Pyle, near Bridgend, hanged himself, February 2007
Thomas Davies, 20, who had been at school with both Dale and David, found hanged from a tree in David’s home village two days before his funeral, February 2007
Zachery Barnes, 17, of Wildmill, Bridgend, a friend of Thomas’s family, hanged with washing line, August 2007
Liam Clarke, 20, a friend of Dale, found hanged in a park in Bridgend, December 2007
Gareth Morgan, 27, who knew Liam, found hanged in his bedroom, January 2008
Natasha Randall, 17, of Blaengarw, Bridgend, a close friend of Liam, hanged herself in her bedroom, January 2008

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