Spate Of Suicides Leaves Estate In Shock

The Pond area, a park overshadowed by tall trees, stands at the heart of Laurelvale in County Armagh. It has got no playground or bench but it is here that teenagers gather in the evening.

From Dorothy Browne’s front door on the redbrick estate opposite, raw marks are visible on a tree where two low branches were sawn off. They mark the spot where 28-year-old Stuart Fletcher hanged himself three months ago.

Around the corner a lamp-post has been taken away. There are flowers at its redundant base commemorating Wayne Browne and James Topley, both 15 and friends. They had hanged themselves from the lamp-post.

Last weekend their classmate Lee Walker, 15, was found dead in his bedroom by his father, in nearby Tandragee.

All three pupils at Craigavon senior high school took their own lives within the space of a month.

Northern Ireland is experiencing an epidemic of suicides like these. Last year 291 people in the province took their own lives, a 37% increase on the figure for 2005. Most were young males. Ten years ago the figure was 138.

Mrs Browne, Wayne’s mother, asks the question that haunts the minds of those left behind. “I don’t know why he did it. He had a holiday booked to go to the Canaries with a friend … I’m a psychiatric nurse, so I ought to have noticed if he was depressed. That night he said ‘don’t go coming for me because one of the chefs is giving me a lift home’. He did talk a bit about Stuart’s death, he knew the family well. He would spend a lot of time on his computer, downloading music and chatting. But he’d stopped doing that and said his computer was broken.”

She wonders what, if anything, she could have done. “How do you keep children safe? Should we have called him in from his mates … tied him to the house? It’s like a dream, unreal. I keep thinking he’ll come through the door.”

The police have now taken away Wayne’s computer for examination.

The deaths in Laurelvale unleashed a shock wave of rumour and speculation. There have been suggestions of mass suicide pacts, drugs, ouija boards, vindictive text messages, and copycat behaviour being encouraged in morbid online chatrooms.

Three self-inflicted deaths at the same school over four weeks is an extraordinary tragedy but clusters of suicides are well known. Richhill, another Armagh village, only five miles away, experienced three in three months in 2001.

According to Mary Creaney, of the West Belfast Suicide Awareness and Support Group, there have been 11 suicides in the County Down village of Kilkeel in the past year, and nine in west Belfast within the past five weeks.

The chatroom “suicide clubs” worry health professionals. Two weeks ago Nicholas Jamieson, 24, from Dublin, teamed up with Barry McGlade, 20, from Omagh, County Tyrone, having met over the internet. Before walking to a remote beauty spot they posted farewell letters to their families. Their bodies were recovered from the bottom of Gortin lake in the county.

The Rev Brian Harper used to run youth activities in Laurelvale for Wayne and his friends. “It’s just so unpredictable. There’s no rationale. There’s nothing you could say was different, nothing to spark such a reaction. After the third death one youngster told me they were numb, they wanted to know why [their friends] had done this to them. Whatever started it, it’s created a route [where] suicide’s seen as an easy option.”

Deaths from suicide exceed fatal road accidents in Northern Ireland, a rise reflecting a global trend: the World Health Organisation finds more people die from suicide each year than from armed conflicts.

Maeve Largey, a psychiatrist at Belfast’s city hospital, gave a paper at a medical conference this week on the province’s suicide rates.

“Rates for young males between 10 and 34 are rising quite dramatically,” she told the Guardian yesterday. “But the rate for females and those of an older age are coming down.

“The suicide rates halved when the Troubles began but started increasing in the mid-70s. England and Wales had a similar trend in the late 1980s and 90s of young male suicides. Men are less likely to seek help. They use hanging – where the fatality rate is higher – more than women, who prefer overdoses.”