Staffordshire riddle: When death comes to a country village

Six people have committed suicide in one year in Gnosall 14 times the national rate. And no one knows why. By Jonathan Owen
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The small community offers few clues to the casual observer. Indeed, driving into Gnosall, it is remarkably unremarkable. A handful of pubs. A stately procession of elderly dog walkers. Children coming home from school in American-style yellow buses. And everyone is keen to stress how happy they are. Why, then, are so many of its inhabitants committing suicide?

This week marks the first anniversary of the death of Craig Parsons, a postman from this Staffordshire village who took his own life on 4 December last year. The 40-year-old was found hanging in the garage of the home he shared with his mother and stepfather, Joy and Maurice Buckless.

As an isolated event, it was tragic. But it has since acquired a macabre symbolism as the first in a series of deaths that have turned Gnosall into Britain's latest suicide hotspot. The community has been rocked by six suicides in less than a year a rate 14 times what should be expected for its population of 5,000.

Three months after Craig Parsons' suicide, grieving widower Peter Forrester, 35, took a fatal overdose of medication prescribed for his late wife, Lisa, who had died just months before from a heart condition. Then, in April, jobless Nigel Buckley-Robbins, 50, killed himself by taking a fatal cocktail of drink and prescription drugs. He had been due in court for assaulting his wife and had a history of violence and depression. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide for each of these three cases.

Weeks later, local schoolgirl Jessica Littleton was discovered barely alive by her younger brother when he came home from school. The troubled teenager, who had hanged herself, survived for two days in hospital. As Jessica left no suicide note, an open verdict was recorded by the coroner. Christmas will be a painful time for the family 23 December would have been her 18th birthday.

Then, in August, pensioner Ian Gould, a 75-year-old widower, hanged himself in his home. The most recent death was of local carpenter Terry Ball, 35, who was found hanging in his home eight days ago, weeks after a special church service to remember the dead. His home is a few minutes' walk away from the house of Peter Forrester, who was found dead on 25 March. Around Gnosall, there is hushed, fearful talk that it may not be over yet.

"I can't remember such a clutch of suicides," said Andrew Haigh, coroner for Staffordshire South.

"What worries me is that it's now going to influence the local people and more may be doing it. There is a valid and real concern about copycat suicides."

Residents are bonding together against the outside world, furious at what they regard as smears that have been made on the village. There have even been suggestions that the village has been cursed. Church warden Jim MacGregor, 72, said: "Talk of the village being doomed or cursed is a complete load of rubbish and it's a pity that people's grief is being disturbed."

Graham Payne, chairman of Gnosall Parish Council, said: "This is a small village of around 5,000 people and if these deaths had happened in a large town, nobody would have taken as much notice." And yet they must all concede that this is precisely why Gnosall has become a focus of attention. The average suicide rate is 8.5 deaths per 100,000 population. In contrast, that of Gnosall over the past 12 months has been 120 deaths per 100,000 14 times the national average.

Local health authority officials have launched an investigation into the deaths. "These are very tragic cases, which might indicate that people are not accessing the services that would help them. There are good mental health services available locally, but accessing those services can sometimes be difficult," said Phil Waterson, chief executive of Mid-Staffs Mind, the mental health charity.

Free counselling sessions for locals are already oversubscribed, with a five-week waiting list. The local health centre is plastered with counselling leaflets, and the Samaritans has distributed in local pubs hundreds of beer mats carrying a 24-hour helpline number.

As the families struggle to come to terms with what has happened, the Bishop of Stafford has appealed for "the village, and all those affected, to be given space to grieve in peace".

Additional reporting by Mark Jewsbury