There is help out there for distressed teens

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Support system grows to assist students who may be drawn to copying those who take their own lives. Madeleine Brettingham reports

Jenna Parry, 16, who was discovered hanged at a Bridgend beauty spot by a local dog walker on Tuesday, is the 17th young person suspected to have committed suicide in or near the Welsh market town. She is also one of the youngest.

Her death, and the suicide of Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, and his cousin Kelly Stephenson, 20, several days before, have brought the sad events of the last year into schools for the first time. In response, the local authority is sending counsellors into every school in the region to talk to young people, and the Welsh Assembly is promising an extra pound;1 million for in-school therapy across Wales. But dealing with the immediate aftermath of suicide has been difficult.

Chris Davies, the headteacher at Brynteg Comprehensive in Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, where Nathaniel had been a pupil, said: "We've been able to focus on those who are most distressed. We've been working with about 20-30 pupils. The council sent an emergency response team, which will stay for a couple of days."

The school has been left treading a fine line between mourning the deaths and romanticising them. It opted to give only a 15-minute assembly explaining Nathaniel's death to Year 11, as well as distributing basic information to form tutors.

"We have to be careful of not falling into the trap the tabloid press has of romanticising the idea," Dr Davies said. "The line we took was that no one made him do it, but he did. We're remembering him, it's a sad day. The main thing is to support each other."

The school employs two part-time counsellors, but prevention of such tragic action can be difficult, Dr Davies said; not only identifying pupils at risk - Nathaniel appeared to be a happy boy with good friends - but finding resources to support them. Not all schools can afford counsellors. "It would make sense for the Welsh Assembly to put a nurse and counsellor in every school in Wales," he said. "I could find work for at least four."

Referring pupils for counselling can also be tricky. "If we decide someone needs mental health support, they're not likely to get it for six months."

Another school affected by the deaths is Ynysawdre Comprehensive, where a 15-year-old girl attempted suicide after the death of her friend, Natasha Randall, 17. Twelve other pupils sought help from teachers afterwards.

"They were so shocked that their friend had tried to take her own life that they felt the need to identify themselves to us," said Michelle Hatcher, the deputy head. "We knew we had to act quickly, so we held a special assembly to explain to pupils there was support within and outside the school if they needed to talk." They offered drop-in sessions for pupils and parents.

As well as offering an emergency response team of counsellors, Bridgend council is working on a longer-term suicide prevention strategy.

"The services are there," said Liam Ronan, the council's PR officer, "but it's a matter of raising their profile and destigmatising them.

"We know that of all the people who take their own lives, only around 25 per cent are known to social services beforehand."

More than 4,000 under-14s were admitted to UK hospitals after suicide attempts last year. But the overall suicide death rate is falling. Recent research by Bristol University found that suicides among 15- to 34-year-olds have halved since the 1990s, possibly because of higher employment, a falling divorce rate, anti-depressant medicines and patrols at suicide blackspots.

Suicide rates in Bridgend are not markedly higher than the rest of the country, although greater than average. There were typically 26.3 deaths per 100,000 each year during 1998-2004, compared to 21.2 in the UK as a whole, and a notable 36.9 in Scotland. But statistics don't help when your school finds itself in the middle of a suicide cluster.

Bridgend is not an isolated case. Last year three boys killed themselves in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, amid rumours, never proven, of an internet suicide pact. Two hanged themselves from the same lamppost.

Suicide clusters can send schools into a tailspin. The media attention they attract is intense.

After the deaths in Northern Ireland, David Mehaffey, the head of Craigavon Senior High, was left fielding media calls from as far afield as America. He had to make difficult decisions, such as opting not to hold an assembly in the boys' honour, in case it was interpreted as glorifying suicide.

"He was trying to hold the community together," said Richard Bullick, a communications officer at the Southern Education and Library Board, which sent in an emergency response team of counsellors. "It was not a school issue - it happened in a particular village - but it was ravaging the school community," said Mr Bullick. "You try to keep the environment as normal as possible, but it's hard."

At Palm Springs High, in California, three teenage suicides in one year prompted Ricky Wright, the principal, to take a longer-term approach to prevention. "All of our efforts up to this point didn't stop them taking their lives," he said.

"I want my kids to tell somebody if a friend of theirs is contemplating suicide. It's hard for people to talk about, but I think we need to talk about it." In the US, most schools have their own team of counsellors. But support does not stop there. In Palm Springs, a local charity, Teen Line, was called in to talk to assemblies about suicide. And the school collaborated with non-profit organisations to set up an ongoing bereavement support group. Two of the school's counsellors continue to give presentations, advising pupils on what to do if they suspect a friend is feeling suicidal.

"I had a call from a parent over the Christmas break," said Jayne Mills, director of child welfare in Palm Springs unified school district. "Her son, a ninth grader (Year 10) at Palm Springs High, had been at one of the assemblies. Initially he thought it was just a lot of drama, but when one of his friends started talking suicide, he remembered the advice to call 911."

The result, she said, is that the girl was taken to hospital and her life was saved - something that would not have happened without the prevention programme.

None of the risk factors for suicide are surprising: alcohol and drug abuse, psychiatric illness, disruptive life events, and isolation.

Suicide clusters are more complex. Memorials to the dead posted on internet networking sites such as Bebo and Myspace, as well as pro-suicide sites which encourage users to trade suicide "tips", have been blamed for encouraging copycat deaths.

Media coverage has also been blamed. Research by the US sociologist David Phillips found there were 58 more deaths than usual in the wake of a front page story about suicide. However, suicide clusters predate the media age. In 4th-century Greece there was an outcry after a spate of suicides by young women in the city of Miletus. In the 1800s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero kills himself, was blamed for copy-cat deaths and banned in several countries.

"Suicides are not a modern phenomenon," said Loren Coleman, a former academic and author of Suicide Clusters. "But the media reinforces the cluster phenomenon through graphic representations of the methods and aftermath of the suicides." However he doesn't support censorship. "A conscious, aware media is better than one that is shutdown," he said.

Dr Sandra Scott, a psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, said the cluster effect was typical of group dynamics. Groups will typically indulge in riskier behaviour than individuals, she said. "Also, the internet allows you to explore much more shocking behaviour than face-to-face contact."

One person who knows about suicide from experience is Alexandra Khan, 23. She attempted to take her own life repeatedly from the age of 10, and remembers feeling depressed as early as five.

Now she gives talks in US schools for the charity Teen Line. "I never really understood why I self-harmed. I didn't have a bad childhood. I just felt different, self-conscious and unsure of myself," she said. "At school no one sat down and talked to me. I kept getting reprimanded and yelled at."

Charities in the UK, such as Papyrus and the Samaritans, which is developing teen suicide advice for schools, can help schools and individuals affected.

In England, the Government is reviewing child mental health services to give local authorities funds to pay for in-school counsellors. A pilot starts this year.


In the past 10 days, three teenagers living in or near the small Welsh town of Bridgend are believed to have committed suicide, bringing the total of young people in the area aged 15 to 26 suspected of taking their own lives since January 2007 to 17. Jenna Parry, 16, was discovered hanged on Tuesday. Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, and his cousin, Kelly Stephenson, 20, were found dead in separate incidents earlier.

Last month a 14-year-old pupil at Tanbridge House School in West Sussex killed herself, a year after an 11-year-old boy committed suicide at the school.

Last year, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, three 15-year-old boys from the same school took their own lives within four weeks.

Also in 2007, three pupils at Palm Springs High, in California, killed themselves. One boy posted a warning of the tragedy on his MySpace page.

In 2006, four teenagers in Pemiscot County, Missouri, killed themselves using the same method. Students were then criticised for "glorifying" the dead.


If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, call the Samaritans 24 hours a day on 08457 909090 or email

To hold a suicide prevention event at your school, contact or

In the event of a suicide at your school you should call your local authority's emergency response team of counsellors.

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