"Mystery" Suicide Epidemic Seems Anything But Mysterious

In less than two years, 25 young people have committed suicide in one small Welsh community. A disturbing Vanity Fair story makes it pretty clear why.

Suicide outbreaks are rare, but not unprecedented: the article references the rash of copycat suicides that followed the publication of Goethe's Sufferings of Young Werther, an outbreak of female suicides in Ancient Greece, and a more recent Japanese suicide cult. Immediately, the ever-sensitive British tabs (which ran headlines like "two more hangings rock death-cult town; two cousins from ‘suicide town' hang themselves within hours as death toll rises") speculated that the epidemic was fueled by a similar internet suicide ring, but those who knew the victims have denied it.

So, why? "Copycatting" is a natural response, to a degree, because not only does suicide create an atmosphere of grief and depression but, as the article puts it, it "lowers the threshold, making it easier and more permissible for the next. As one girl puts it, "I felt less scared knowing one of my friends had done it." And it seems like the media blitz has only spread the epidemic: after the tabs got wind of the phenomenon, there were four hangings in quick succession. It's well known that Britain generally is having increased problems with youth behavioral problems and there's a breakdown of communication between the generations. But why this one town? Well, as the author notes, it is a dreary place: a depressed former mining community with a dark and depressing aesthetic, that no one leaves, fostering "the boredom, demoralization, and anhedonia of being inextricably stuck in some backwater place. As one Bridgend girl told the Telegraph, 'Suicide is just what people do here because there is nothing else to do.'" It has been suggested that the entire sun-deprived region suffers from a kind of permanent Seasonal Affective Disorder that makes the residents more prone to depression, and this suceptible to copycat suicide. And at this point, it could actually be genetic:

As in many rural parts of Europe, families have been living in the same place for generations, which means that their cumulative coefficient of kinship is similar to what you'd expect between cousins. This suggests that traits like suicidality and depressiveness, and the low levels of serotonin in the brain they are associated with, could be more concentrated in certain regions. A study of the brains of suicide victims who were abused or neglected as children found epigenetic changes-that is, chemical alterations on the "outside" of DNA strands, which can be caused by environmental factors. So the effect of parenting-good, bad, or nonexistent-might have a lifelong impact by determining which genes get expressed and which get "switched off."

Exacerbating the problem, there is no culture of dealing with suicide or depression. Even the leader of the local young people's club, the one person who seems invested in the kids, says the younger generation "have lost their tough-mindedness... When we were growing up, you didn't kill yourself. You dealt with it. One guy who did and left two kids was always referred to as ‘that bastard.' It was a hard life in the coal towns, but a good one. There were accidents in the mines, and colliers died of dust." But of course, there were the mines: whatever the hardships and struggles, life took a more predictable path. The traditional hardscrabble life of a miner still probably provided far more structure than days of boredom and inactivity, especially with the taunting contrast of movies, TV and easy celebrity now omnipresent. It's a tragic story, and the article's a harrowing read, because one sees no end to the despair. What is particularly galling is the contrast of the media's sensationalism and the community's lack of concrete support: Neil, the club leader, mentions that the community center is flailing financially and that the government hasn't provided so much as a qualified counselor to the area. Yet, the media fascination continues, speculating, moralizing, sensationalizing, when it seems like this could be a perfect opportunity for analysis, study, solutions and prevention of further such outbreaks - for surely this will not be the last. Suicide epidemics seem more exciting when they're shrouded in mystery, perhaps, or associated with cults and svengalis. But the truth is that the epidemic seems like a natural and inevitable outgrowth of these kids' quotidian malaise. And if this is the only excitement and interest they have generated from anyone, ever, can people wonder that suicide is glamorized?

The Mystery Suicides Of Bridgend County [Vanity Fair]