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 among 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.
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.
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.
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.
Darren Matthews, director of the local branch of the Samaritans, 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.