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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 18:12 GMT
Shocked community seeks answers
By Kevin Leonard
BBC Wales

Bridgend town sign
There is concern about how Bridgend is being portrayed
Talk to anyone in Bridgend and the suspected suicides among the county's young people are not far from their thoughts.

Residents have their opinions but nobody has the answers.

They have spoken of their shock and are at a loss to understand why 17 young people in the area would apparently want to kill themselves since January 2007.

There is also a sensitivity about how their county, with a population of 130,000, is being portrayed. A place they have always regarded as unremarkable.

There is deprivation but unemployment is comparable with other south Wales industrial areas that appear to have lower suicide rates among their young people.

Bridgend is both a town and a county. Around 40,000 people live in the town itself, where the Ford engine factory is the best known employer.

There are also valley communities and not far away is the seaside town of Porthcawl, popular with surfers.

The sudden deaths have not been confined to one area.

From 1996 to 2006, Bridgend county had the highest rates of suicide in Wales among males aged 15 to 24, although it was only sixth in Wales for all males aged over 15.

Robert Batchelor
You need people in schools looking out for the early signs
Robert Batchelor

Darren Matthews, branch director for the Samaritans in Bridgend, said: "It's got its problems like any town but there's nothing special about Bridgend.

"In my mind, Bridgend has always had a high suicide rate but it's been older people.

"The community is in in shock. They can't believe this is happening and so many people have died."

He believes deprivation often plays a part in suicides but other factors must also contribute for it to affect so many young people.

He said: "We believe it may be a suicide cluster and there's a contagion effect. The door has been opened.

"It's saying to the rest of the community that suicide is an option."

He added that this would particularly affect a young, vulnerable person who was feeling suicidal anyway.

Bridgend Samaritans sign
Bridgend Samaritans said the community is in "shock"

Speaking to shoppers in Bridgend town centre on Wednesday, everybody I spoke to was aware of what had been happening, but it came as a surprise to meet somebody who had actually tried to take his own life.

Robert Batchelor, 38, a painter and decorator, spoke openly about how he attempted suicide 13 years ago and said he could identify with the emotions that some young people felt.

"I tried to kill myself and mates had also tried to take their own lives before me.

"I had no prospects really."

Mr Batchelor, who is now planning to live in Spain, said he thought that early intervention in schools would be the best way of preventing suicides.

"You need to catch it at an early age at school.

"You need people in schools looking out for the early signs."

This echoes comments by mental health charity Mind, which has said that schools should train teachers in suicide awareness.

Another issue that has raised concern locally is some of the media coverage which has seen Bridgend labelled as a "suicide town".

On Tuesday, South Wales Police and the parents of 15-year-old Nathaniel Pritchard, who apparently killed himself, were critical of some of the media coverage of the deaths.

Stacy Browning
It's a lovely town, that's why it's so shocking
Stacy Browning

Shoppers in Bridgend also expressed concern about the coverage and how the town was being portrayed.

Police have said there was no link between a number of suicides in the area and no suggestion of a pact, saying they "were all young people with big issues".

Carol Phillips, 56, said: "It's not fair on the families enduring it day after day on the television and in the newspapers.

"It could influence the youngsters, I think. We think it's a coincidence that has been highlighted by the media."

And Stacy Browning, 22, said: "It's a lovely town, that's why it's so shocking.

"A lot of the media have portrayed us as an awful town but it's not a horrible place."

Graph showing numbers of suicides among 15-29-year-olds in Wales and in the Bridgend area since 2004

Steps are being taken to ensure that the suicide rate in Bridgend and, indeed, the whole of Wales, is reduced.

The Welsh Assembly Government wants a 10% drop in suicides by 2012.

That's no surprise when suicide rates among men in Wales are the highest in the four UK nations.

A separate suicide prevention strategy has also been set up to tackle the deaths in Bridgend county.

Alison Mawby, project manager with KPC Youth which helps provide activities for young people in the communities of Kenfig Hill, Pyle and Cornelly, said everybody was now working together.

"With everybody working together across the borough, we can work out some sort of strategy on this.

"I wish there was a magic answer but it's very complex."

Map showing locations of suspected suicides in Bridgend county area since January 2007

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