/ 21 February 2008

Focus on British media amid wave of suicides

The British media are under the spotlight, accused of encouraging a flurry of apparent suicides by impressionable teenagers in and around the small town of Bridgend in the south Wales valleys.

In little more than a year, 17 young people have been found dead, 16 of them hanged — a rare method for suicide particularly among young girls — and one hit by an oncoming train.

The latest was Jenna Parry (16). She was discovered hanging from a tree near her home in Cefn Cribwr, near Bridgend. Last week, two cousins were found dead within hours of each other.

With so many deaths of young people — all of whom were related, knew each other or had some link with previous victims — the British press has begun to talk of internet suicide pacts and the area as ”suicide county”.

But the assertion has been strongly rejected, with police, families, lawmakers and mental health charities all accusing the media of encouraging copycats and sensationalism.

”I would like to put to bed any suggestion within the media that we are investigating suicide pacts or suicide internet links,” Dave Morris, an assistant chief constable with South Wales Police, said on Tuesday.

”We are speaking to young people in Bridgend and what we are getting from them is that the media is starting to contribute to their thoughts in terms of how they feel, pressures they are under and Bridgend becoming stigmatised through the media,” he said.

Carwyn Jones, who represents the Bridgend area for the Labour Party in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, has also weighed in, criticising London-based papers for unbalanced coverage and having preconceived ideas about the town.

Sharon Pritchard, whose 15-year-old son was one of the two cousins found hanged last week, said: ”The media coverage put the idea [of suicide] in Nathaniel’s head.”

But Morris admitted that all the young victims used social networking sites, which could have been a factor — as such media are more influential among the young than newspapers.

Statistically, Wales has the highest number of suicides in Britain — 19,4 per every 100 000 men and 17,4 for the same number of women.

A lack of facilities for young people in the Bridgend area has been highlighted. Yet, although the town of Bridgend — population 130 000 — is in a former mining area, it is not particularly disadvantaged, having managed to attract foreign investors of the likes of Sony or Ford.

”It’s described as a highly depressed former mining town — but it’s never been a mining town. And the town is getting an awful reputation,” Carwyn Jones was quoted as saying in this week’s Press Gazette trade newspaper.

British newspapers, which are bound by a code of conduct to avoid ”excessive detail” about suicide methods, have also cited the ”Werther effect” — a contagion phenomenon among young people proposed by United States academic David Phillips.

Phillips, a sociologist at the University of San Diego in California, draws a parallel between the number of actual suicides and the publication in 1774 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. That triggered a wave of suicides in Europe among young, male ”romantics”.

The Guardian on Thursday cited research from Oxford University’s department of psychiatry that said there is ”compelling evidence” that news reports on, and fictional drama about, suicide increases suicidal behaviour.

Sue Simkins, from the centre for suicide research, said there is ”clear evidence” reports describing suicide methods, condolences and online obituaries ”romanticise” the deceased and lead to copycat attempts.

”Studies have also found increases in suicides after a picture is used of the victim or the location and where the story is sensationalised, is prominent in the paper and is repeated,” she added. — Sapa-AFP