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Police investigate 7th apparent suicide in Welsh town in a year
A general view shows Blaengarw, near the town of Bridgend in Wales, Wednesday Jan. 23, 2008, where 17-year-old Natasha Randall committed suicide in her home there last week. Seven young people around the southern Welsh town of Bridgend have died in the last 12 months in what is feared to be a spate of suicides. Police said Wednesday they were examining the computer of the 17-year-old girl found hanged in her bedroom last week. - photo by Associated Press
    BRIDGEND, Wales — There is a deepening sense of foreboding and hopelessness in this South Wales market town as the number of young people who have killed themselves keeps rising. The death toll now is seven.
    The rash of deaths — and front-page news stories about other young people whose suicides were prevented by last-minute intervention — seems to be the only topic under discussion in the cafes and shops of this former coal mining community of 40,000.
    ‘‘People are saying it might be some sort of cult, but we don’t know,’’ said Luke Wills, 25. ‘‘There is something amiss, but we don’t know what.’’
    Police say there appears to be no common link between the deaths. But at least one newspaper published a photograph of two of the dead together, fueling speculation of suicide pacts struck among friends linked by Internet social networking sites.
    ‘‘It’s nothing like that. What people are saying is not true,’’ said Alicia Johns, a friend of 17-year-old Natasha Randall, who was found dead last week.
    ‘‘People get down and they do it,’’ she added, saying the young people acted on their own and were not influenced by others. ‘‘It’s all from the same group, I knew these people.’’
    In addition to Randall, six men between the ages of 17 and 27 have also been found dead in the area. Authorities have ruled three of the cases to be suicides; the others are under investigation, but suicide is suspected.
    The deaths have contributed to a mood as grim as the nearly perpetual damp mists that shroud Bridgend in the long winter months. Surrounded by rolling green hills, the small commercial city empties quickly at nightfall, giving it a desolate feeling.
    The despair is not surprising to Wills, a lifelong resident who works in a clothing shop and said there is nothing for young people to do except drink alcohol and take drugs. He said even the bowling alley closed recently.
    ‘‘There’s nothing for anyone to do,’’ he said with a shrug. ‘‘There’s a recreation center for kids, but you have to pay to use it.’’
    In earlier eras, there was steady work at the coal mines. It wasn’t an easy life, but it could support a family. Now there are fewer opportunities in Bridgend, 165 miles west of London, and in the surrounding valley towns where many of the deaths have occurred.
    Randall has a special page in her honor on the Bebo Web site, a popular social networking site. It uses her nickname and is titled, ‘‘RIP Tasha.’’
    Town officials are perplexed about how to intervene. The suicide prevention group, the Samaritans, has increased its visibility, school administrators are holding anti-suicide meetings, and church groups have stepped up their activities.
    The director of the local branch of the Samaritans has added community outreach programs and has made it easier for young people to seek confidential help via e-mail or text messages.
    ‘‘We’re doing as much as we can with the volunteers we have,’’ said Darren Matthews, the Samaritans director. ‘‘The community is in shock and the people need to grieve because they have lost real people and many people are devastated by these deaths.’’
    He said the suicide rate in south Wales has been rising for the past three years but it is only in the last year that young people have started to take their own lives. In Wales in 2002-2004 — the most recent period for which full data are available — there were 22.4 suicides per 100,000 men, compared with 16.7 per 100,000 in England.
    ‘‘Before people used to not talk about suicide but now everyone is talking about it, asking why are our youngsters killing themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘People are asking what they can do. Bridgend has problems — high unemployment, few job prospects, a high level of illness, but we’ve never seen something like this before.’’
    Alan Hilfer, the director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, described what was happening in and around Bridgend as ‘‘cluster suicides,’’ which he said were rare and had been seen in the United States in smaller groups.
    ‘‘Cluster suicides usually occur when there is a lot of publicity,’’ he said. ‘‘In vulnerable populations like adolescents, when one of their peers commits suicide, even if it’s just someone they vaguely know, this sends the message that suicide is a viable alternative.’’
    Hilfer said the Internet is something professionals worry about because it is hard to track what teens are discussing and how they are reacting.
    ‘‘We do worry about kids confusing what they do and see on the computer with reality,’’ he said. ‘‘Kids get so swept up into these virtual communities that they may lose perspective.’’
    Bridgend lawmaker Madeline Moon is setting up a meeting Friday to see if school administrators, mental health professionals and other local activists can come up with a plan to combat the suicides.
    She said she has been contacted by counterparts in Northern Ireland and New Zealand who reported similar waves of suicides among young people.
    ‘‘They were eventually able to calm things down and that’s what we need to do,’’ she said.
    Church officials are also trying to encourage young people to speak out if they are troubled, said Robin French, an administrator at the nearby Nolton parish church.
    He said young people spend all their free time communicating with a tight circle of close friends via instant message, e-mail and mobile phones and have few face-to-face conversations. When something goes wrong in their inner circle, they feel helpless and don’t know where to turn, he said.
    ‘‘Nobody really knows what to do,’’ he said. ‘‘Society is disconnected. We’re used to suicides in our village. People do the business from a big tree near the chips shop or jump off the train. It seems everybody knows a family that’s been affected.’’
    He said illegal drugs have become so common that they can be obtained simply by calling a taxi service whose drivers will deliver them. This has contributed to the increased suicides, he said.
    ‘‘The seven who have killed themselves are just the tip,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re the ones who have succeeded. Many others have tried and that goes unreported. Nobody is going to be untouched by this.’’
    People who know the teen who died last week say they saw no warning signs.
    ‘‘She was a lovely girl from a lovely family,’’ said Michael Tapner, a 57-year-old family friend and retired coal miner. ‘‘I blame the environment. There is nothing for the kids to do, no place to go, nothing.’’
    Associated Press Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this story.

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