Last week Tasha Randall, aged 17, hanged herself in her bedroom in Bridgend while her father and stepmother were downstairs. My heart goes out to them. For the rest of their lives, they will be going over those last few weeks and months, wondering what more they could have done to help.
Tasha is the 13th young suicide in the Bridgend area in the past year and the police confirmed yesterday that they are looking at websites such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook to see if they could be to blame. [See 'Bridgend inquests told of young men's tormented lives and desperate deaths', The Independent, 20 March 2008]
Copycat suicides are not new. The past 10 years have seen spates of suicides in Belfast and at Eton, and websites came in for blame each time. A fad is sweeping Japan for people to get together for a carbon monoxide party where nobody leaves alive, and they find each other on the net. But the prize for the most grisly internet suicide has to go to Armin Meiwes's victim Bernd-Jürgen Brandes. He volunteered on an internet messageboard to be Meiwes's cannibal victim and was duly eaten, severed genitalia first, with salt, pepper and garlic. Meiwes, now a vegetarian, is in prison, but the internet is still in the dock.
The internet is a human construct. It is good or bad, depending on what we make of it. I use Facebook myself and have wasted as much time as anyone poring over other people's holiday photos and marvelling at how often young people manage to lose their phones. Yet hardly a week goes by without another paranoid piece of journalism about Facebook or a whinge about how dreadful blogs are. But it was through the net that I found out about my daughter's teenage mental health problems, and she was the one who led me there.
She was a Goth at school. It seemed a reasonable enough act of rebellion against the Barbie culture and at least she wasn't running around half-dressed. She was covered head to toe, in fact, and, I thought, safe. Her friends were sweet; all of them dressed like crows, but were perfectly well-mannered. Well read, too. They knew their Keats and Shelley, their Chatterton and Byron. Mention Dylan and they'd ask which one, American or Welsh?
When a Scottish survey (published on the net) pointed to a connection between Goth music and self-harm, they said they probably listened to more Leonard Cohen than Marilyn Manson. One said that, at the time of his last suicide attempt, he was simultaneously into indie and prog rock, but nobody surveyed that, did they? Some of this debate happened in the pub, much of it on the net. Unlike beer, texts and phone calls, the net is free.
She won prizes at school and got a place at Oxford. We were thrilled. She seemed to have got the pitch right too, with plenty of study going on but a lively pub life and lots of friends. She kept telling me about her blog and how people praised it. Did she want me to take a look? She wouldn't give me a straight answer.
Then she dropped into the conversation how I could find it through her college drinking club, and there it was. All jolly drunken exploits – well, didn't we drink at that age, yards of ale and all that? – until I realised she had been drinking to oblivion, being helped back to her room and remembering nothing next day, every evening for a fortnight. I drove to Oxford next day and learned for the first time that she was on prescribed drugs for depression. It was her 18th birthday.
She was defensive that day and nothing I said or did was right. She mentioned the word "suicide" in the context of other people, and I began to get a chill, sickly feeling below the ribs that has never quite gone away. Then I saw her left wrist.
I longed to scoop her up like a toddler and bring her home, but she wanted to stay with her friends. It was a very long month before she came home, at her tutor's suggestion, and the two of us went to Wales for a while. We walked the dog and rested our eyes on the hills. As we downed some wine together, I listened to her talk, and my heart broke more with each syllable.
Self-annihilation takes many forms and she seemed to be sampling them all. She'd take on anybody in a drinking bout, inspired by Dylan Thomas's fatal "eighteen straight whiskies". So there were casual accidental injuries as well as cutting herself, and a flamboyantly self-wasteful approach to sex. Drugs were in there too, but they were dismissed as boring compared to alcohol, and thank God she didn't go the heroin road.
We found her a private therapist. I don't apologise for this. The NHS waiting list where we live is nine months just to be assessed, and in Oxford it's a year. It must be tempting to do something desperate just to jump the queue. I took to sitting in the car with a book while she went in for her hour's cognitive behavioural therapy. A man in a Jaguar would park beside me, waiting for his son. It used to be flute lessons, now this. Her therapist recommended websites (Mind, Samaritans, MoodGYM) and keeping a mood diary. Her blog meant that she was used to this discipline already.
I learned in Wales not to underestimate the severity of what was happening to her. She suffered regular panic attacks, often at night when I would end up rocking my adult daughter as if she was a baby. It reminded me of accounts of shell shock in the First World War, when soldiers were sent too often into battle. Her terrors focused on the university. There was no question of her going there for a while. The college seemed used to the territory and kept her place open.
Before she came home, I asked if I could tidy her bedroom for her. She agreed; she wouldn't have the energy herself. Among the drifts of clothes, unopened bank statements and old gig tickets, I found a tiny box covered in foil. Inside was some purple shop tissue. I parted it carefully. Some jewellery, perhaps? A present from a boyfriend? Inside was a blade, clean, shining, about as long as my thumb. A safety razor without the safety. Did she know that I would find it? I remembered the day I brought her home from the maternity ward – and cried.
It was the loneliest time of my life. That is why I feel so deeply for Tasha Randall's family, for the families and friends of all suicides. There are excellent resources now, especially on the net, for anyone who feels suicidal, and it will be even better when a search on how to kill yourself leads you straight to the websites of Mind or the Samaritans. There's no doubt about that.
But where is the help for the families? Mind has a list of dos and don'ts for people living with someone who is depressed. I've probably done all of them. What was right? I still have no idea. I was bewildered. I had always run my business from home so I could be a hands-on mother – always at the school gate and there for every Nativity play and school concert. How could this happen to my child? It was a time of loss. The sturdy, bossy, confident girl we used to have seemed to have gone for ever.
Sometimes I'd find another parent of a depressed child and we would huddle, wondering what we were supposed to do. If we show tireless love and patience (and how difficult that is), are we like the "refrigerator mothers" of the Fifties, accused of causing autism by cosseting too much? Or is there something to be said (as there can be with addicts) for throwing them out of the home? How far should we blame ourselves?
I've kept her blade and its box. One day, maybe, we'll look at it together as if all that happened to another person. But we're not quite there yet. Cognitive behavioural therapy has helped her enormously and she seems calmer and more positive now. She's living with a steady boyfriend and has a job.
But she won't go back to university. That would be too much. She feels she has let everybody down, but the truth is that I couldn't be more proud of her. She's fought to stay alive. She's still fighting. I do still get the fear if she hasn't been in touch for a while. So what do I do if she's not answering her phone? I message her on Facebook, of course.
Further browsing: Papyrus is a charity working to prevent young suicides. It offers advice to parents at www.papyrus-uk.org/for-parents.html and telephone support through HOPELineUK on 0870 170 4000