Bridgend's mood turns from shock to anger

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The Independent Online

As she emerged from the newsagent into the steady drizzle falling on Bridgend's main shopping centre yesterday, 18-year-old Rachel was clutching a bag of that day's papers. Each bore on its front page the haunting image of Jenna Parry, a local teenager whose body had been discovered the previous day by a dog walker in the nearby village of Cefn Cribwr.

She was the 17th young person believed to have taken their own life in this part of South Wales since January 2007, a cluster of suicides that has catapulted the quiet market town into the blinding glare of the international media spotlight.

Rachel, not her real name, knows only too well the pain behind the glib headlines that have greeted the tragedies, describing her home as "suicide town" and speculating that the victims' were part of some kind of "death cult".

Like so many others her age living within this small community she knew those that died – one was a cousin while four of the young men and two of the women were friends.

However, she dismissed talk that they might have entered into some kind of suicide pact. "They were not doing it together. People say there was a website that tells you how to do it. But I don't think that is true. Most just had silly arguments with their boyfriends or their parents."

Rachel said she plans to keep the newspapers as mementos but admits the tabloid stories make pitiful epitaphs for the unfilled promise of her young friends' lives.

"They wanted their five minutes of fame but when you are dead it is a case of out of sight out of mind," she adds.

There is mounting concern in Bridgend that media coverage of the deaths is beginning to alter the mood in the town and surrounding areas where the tragedies occurred. The local MP and South Wales Police have attacked sensationalised reports as part of the problem, claiming such coverage is now the only link between the most recent deaths.

An official report published on the day of the latest suicide insisted none of the previous 16 was connected to either internet networking sites or secret pacts, as reported in the media.

The parents of one of the dead teenagers said they feared coverage could "trigger other young people who are already vulnerable and feeling low into attempting to take their own lives". Some charities working in suicide prevention have withdrawn all co-operation with reporters fearing any more publicity could encourage others to follow suit.

But Phil Jones, research fellow at the Institute of Life Sciences at the nearby University of Swansea who is studying historic suicide rates in Wales, concedes there is a problem in Bridgend, particularly among young men aged between 15 and 24. He says it is vital to break the taboo surrounding the issue to persuade youngsters to seek help.

For all the criticism levelled at the media, publicity has prompted official action – welcome news in places like Bridgend and nearby Neath Port Talbot where young male suicide rates are running at more than double the national average.

In Bridgend in 2006 only three young men took their own lives – a figure that tripled in 2007 when the present cluster began.

Wales has recently overtaken Scotland to post the highest UK suicide rates among men. The principality is to introduce a nationwide anti-suicide strategy like those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland while the Welsh Assembly announced new measures to investigate young deaths.