The tragic history of suicides in the town and the search for an explanation.

The town of Bridgend

The former mining town, population 39,000, has struggled to attract new industries. The claimant count in Bridgend is 9%, the second highest in Wales, with many on incapacity benefit. Historically, it has had a high suicide rate and, as a coastal town with high unemployment rates, a high rate of suicide among young males might be expected.

The deaths

Seventeen suicides in the county borough of Bridgend, population 132,000, since the beginning of last year. Seven were initially linked as part of a possible 'cluster'. Six were not included in this 'cluster' because they were not known to each other and had clearly identifiable possible motives. James Knight, 26, hanged himself after breaking up with his girlfriend. Andrew O'Neill, 19, killed himself after being convicted of drink-driving and assaulting a police officer. What particularly alarmed the South Wales Coroner, Philip Walters, about the seven victims was that they knew each other, gave no reasons and left no notes. Since then there has been the death of Nathaniel Pritchard on February 13, that police said was not linked to any of the other deaths, but Kelly Stephenson, found hanged a few hours later, was his cousin and the two were said to be close. Jenna Parry, 16, was also thought to know at least one other victim.

The chronology of "the seven" and the deaths that followed

Dale Crole, 18, hanged himself in a derelict warehouse in neighbouring Porthcrawl on January 5 2007. His friend David Dilling, 19, hanged himself on February 18. Thomas Davies, 20, who knew both of them, hanged himself in a park a week later. Zachary Barnes, 17, who hanged himself on August 11, is also believed to have been known to other victims. In December Liam Clarke, a friend of Crole, was found hanged in a park. Gareth Morgan, 27, who knew Clarke, died on January 5 this year. Natasha Randall, 17, posted a tribute message to Clarke on her Bebo page two days before she hanged herself on January 17. On February 13 Kelly Stephenson was found hanged a few hours after her cousin Nathaniel Pritchard, 15, was declared dead following a suspected suicide. The two cousins were said to be "very close" and on one of Ms Stephenson's Bebo pages there were tributes to Clarke, Randall and Barnes. Jenna Parry, 16, found hanged on the morning of 19 February, was thought to be a close friend of at least one other victim.

Looking for explanations

A senior social worker who knows the area well told The Times: "These deaths come out of the blue, without any explanation. It could be a sort of copycat thing, and the net is a likely target. From the cases I've been involved with it seems that young people are killing themselves as an extreme reaction to everyday things. They're not being bullied, they're not in high-achieving families where they feel they've failed. It's as though they do it without expecting any consequences, and that's hard to understand."

A case study

Melanie Davies, the mother of Thomas Davies, who hanged himself using a Tarzan rope that he found on a tree, says: "It was spur of the moment. He didn't leave a note. When he went out that morning he said to his brother, 'Tell Mammy I'll see her after'. He'd got his trousers out to go to the funeral of Dai Dilling [who had killed himself]. He knew him because they'd been at school together...I said, 'You wouldn't do that to me, would you? Kill yourself like those two boys.' He said 'I love you too much for that, Mammy.'" He was looking for work and was frustrated that his two previous convictions for threatening behaviour or violence - which she blamed partly on the way alcohol made him "a different person" - were hampering his applications. He had lately fallen and banged his head, requiring stitches - he was worried it would scar: "that might have contributed" she said. Because of that he did not accompany the family to a wedding; when they returned he was not home, he died in the early hours of the following day.

The internet effect?

Within hours of the death of Natasha Randall, 17, last Thursday, a site dedicated to her name appeared on the web, with photographs, poems and tributes. Six days later, nearly 3000 people had visited. A typical entry read: "Love you loads your a star && always well be 4eva xx". A police spokesman in Bridgend said: "They may think it's cool to have a memorial website. It may even be a way of achieving prestige among their peer group."

The South Wales Coroner, Phillip Walters, said last month that he would be looking "at these networking sites to see if there is a link between them and the growing number of youngsters committing suicide". He added: "In the meantime I want to warn youngsters about the possible dangers these websites can pose. I would also like to warn parents to be actively on the alert for signs of their children being influenced by others on these sites."

A Bebo spokesman said last week that the company operated responsibly and was working closely with the authorities to monitor sites. "We will work closely with the authorities to provide any assistance which will help them with their investigations," he said.

What is to be done?

Madeleine Moon, the Labour MP for Bridgend, has called for more money to be spent on trying to halt the rising number of suicides in her town. She told the House of Commons that the town was waiting for lottery funding for suicide-prevention schemes but that the money might not arrive until 2009.

The Ministry of Justice is examining new curbs in the law to stop internet sites giving out information about different ways of committing suicide. Three other Whitehall departments - health, culture and children - are all involved in trying to tackle what the Government describes as a "complex problem".

Tanya Bryon, the television parenting guru, who is conducting an independent review of child safety on the web on behalf of the Government, is to study evidence on internet suicide as part of her investigation into the risks from exposure to harmful information.

The pressure group Papyrus is lobbying the Government to amend the law to make it illegal for internet sites to publish material aimed at aiding suicides.

The national context

There is no evidence of a 'youth suicide epidemic' in Britain. Figures show UK suicides among men aged 15-44 down from a high of 2,951 in 1998 to 2,264 in 2006. The rate of suicides also fell, from 24 deaths per 100,000 young men to 17.7 per 100,000. Among women aged 15-44, suicides are down from 733 in 1998 to 565 in 2006, with the rate falling from 5.9 deaths to 4.4 per 100,000.

The Welsh context

Suicide rates among men in Wales are currently the highest in the UK. The Welsh Assembly wants a 10 per cent reduction in suicides by 2012.

The history of 'copycat suicides'

Following the publication of Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in 1774, there were many reports of young men shooting themselves, in what was believed to be copies of the death of the novel's hero. When academic David Phillips studied copycat suicides in the early 1970s, he coined the term Werther Effect. Studying suicides in the US between 1947 and 1968, Phillips found that within two months of a front-page suicide, an average of 58 more people than usual killed themselves. And there is also a sharp rise in car crash fatalities and other forms of disguised suicides. Later studies showed that people were more likely to copy the behaviour of others if they felt similar to the person they were copying: it has been argued that social networking sites are a highly effective means of allowing people to communicate with someone they feel similar to.

Internet suicides

In August last year Kevin Whitrick, from Wellington, Shropshire, committed suicide while using a live webcam. Simon Kelly, from Cornwall, was communicating with others on a suicide chat room right up until the moment that he killed himself in 2001.

Rosemary Vaux, a spokeswoman for Papyrus, said: "In the United Kingdom the law specifically bans grooming a child for sex, but it's not illegal to groom a child for death." There is no suggestion that this has happened in Bridgend, however, rather what is feared is the possible "normalising effect" of the internet.

The view from Japan

Following the world's first internet suicide pact in Japan in 2003, suicide sites and forums proliferated. To combat this the has country developed cyberpatrols, web whistle-blowers and a special online suicide-watch police division. Software has been created that monitors chatrooms for keywords that suggest a suicide is imminent. While Japan's overall suicide rate remains high, the pandemic of internet suicides has been very effectively ended.