Teenage suicide: a web of despair
Internet sites that encourage vulnerable young people to commit suicide – and instruct them in the best ways to do it – are burgeoning, leading to devastating results even from failed attempts. Christine Fieldhouse meets the parents left to pick up the pieces.
By Christine Fieldhouse
Published: 7:00AM BST 15 May 2010
Rosie Wilson sweeps to the door while talking on the phone, and shows me into an immaculate living-room. Tall and elegantly dressed, she ends her call and points to the corner of the room. 'This is Ziggy,' she says, using her daughter Frances's nickname and indicating a photo in a pretty glass frame. The resemblance between mother and daughter is obvious. The girl in the photo has long blond hair; her mother's is shorter, blond and styled. Both have perfect white teeth. In the photo, Ziggy has fresh, youthful rosy cheeks, and she is laughing. Rosie's skin is tanned from a holiday but she looks as if it's a long time since she laughed.
Ziggy got three A-levels and was a talented artist, then she took a gap year and worked in Marks & Spencer for five months to save up to go abroad. She spent eight challenging months in Uganda working in a school, teaching up to 50 children
at a time, and dealing with 12-year-olds who prostituted themselves on the way to school to get money to eat. She suffered malaria twice, but came home describing her Uganda trip as 'the best thing she ever did' because it made her aware of how much in her life she had taken for granted. Ziggy then went to the University of Derby to study art; she was a perfectionist who wanted to turn out the best art assignments in her year. But telling me all this, Rosie's voice gradually tails off and she shakes her head sadly. I apologise for talking as if Ziggy is dead. Rosie does not take offence; she understands. She feels the same.
Rosie is 54, a teacher of children in care. 'The daughter I had is gone,' she says. 'She's not there any more. Even she knows it. It's like a cruel trick, as if someone else has been substituted. She looks the same but she's different. People say I should be grateful that I still have her, that she's still alive. They may see her as a young child, but it isn't the Ziggy we had and knew. She's just a shell of who she once was.'
It is hard to imagine that the beautiful girl in the photo was so depressed that she researched committing suicide on the internet. A month before her 24th birthday, on June 12, 2007, Ziggy took a strong nylon washing-line, made a noose in a doorway of her ground-floor flat in Cambridge and hanged herself, just as the website advised, tying the knot as instructed. But she was found and cut down by her ex-boyfriend, David, and brought back from the dead by doctors at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. She is now brain-damaged and needs round-the-clock care. In many ways, Ziggy is a toddler inside an adult's body.
Before she attempted the hanging, her family had grown increasingly worried about Ziggy. She had left her course at Derby in 2004, during her second year, when she started cutting her arms, and had then taken an overdose of more than 50 paracetamol which she had been hoarding. She transferred her studies to Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, where she met David, a mature student 10 years her senior, but despite taking anti-depressants, she remained depressed and suicidal.
A week before she tried to hang herself, her family found the sites that she had been logging on to on the computer. Her mother tried to get her seen by the family GP, who knew Ziggy's history, but the doctor she eventually saw halved her medication with a view to changing it the following week, and sent her home with a counselling leaflet. Rosie has always maintained that her daughter should have been sectioned or at least put in hospital at that stage.
But Rosie's real – and raw – anger is directed towards the sites that dish out the information about suicide, some advising youngsters on what to put in a suicide letter to their parents, others describing the side-effects of poisons. As she talks about them, her fingers stretch upwards, rigid with anger and frustration. She is now so fiercely protective of the family she has remaining – her husband and 19-year-old son – that she does not even want to name them.
'Ziggy had suffered from depression from her late teens,' Rosie says. 'The self-harming and the first suicide attempt, the overdose, happened before she met David. I used to wash Ziggy's cuts and bandage her up. She told me it was easier to feel physical pain than to feel mental torture. The self-harming was a release. I have friends with depression and they say it's worse than any physical pain you can imagine. But for Ziggy, the real pain came from splitting up with David, and not wanting
to live alone without him. Things got much worse after they separated. She used to spend hours on eBay and Facebook, even when she was at our house – or so we thought. When my husband checked the computer's history, he saw she'd been looking at suicide sites. We asked her why she was doing it, and she said it was a comfort to know they were there. When we looked at the sites, they showed people how to hang themselves from almost anywhere and how to tie the noose. The way they tell you how to tie the knot is virtually impossible to undo. When David found her, he had to get knives to saw through it,' she adds.
'The internet sites are the reason Ziggy chose that method. She knew from her own experience when she took an overdose that it made her so sick and ill, and gave her such physical agony, she'd never do that again. The site states that hanging
is painless, but who knows if it is? No one can remember doing it. No one will ever really know. What they don't tell you on these vile sites is what can happen if you are brought back.
'They should stress that people could end up not dead, but like Ziggy. She spent six weeks in a coma, catheterised and with tubes down her throat, and I spent days lying on the floor by her bed, sobbing. She thrashed her limbs around like
a landed fish. She needed restraints on her bed. She had terrible fever and sweats. Friends would come into hospital and sob at the sight of her.'
When Rosie found Ziggy's diary, she was horrified to read the detailed accounts of how
to hang yourself. The diary revealed Ziggy had planned to commit suicide at a hotel. Yet, in reality, on the day she hanged herself Ziggy had had an hour-long chat with her brother and a brief chat with Rosie, in which she had stressed she didn't want Rosie to go to her flat because David was on his way. Rosie says Ziggy had spoken to David on the phone and she knew he was going to the flat after he had sorted out some artwork for his finals, but he was delayed. Sometime during the half hour between speaking to her mother and David's arrival Ziggy hanged herself, and it still is not clear whether she intended David to find her in time or not.
But it was clear from her diary that it was something she had been planning for a long time. 'The diary was like a shopping list, full of information from the websites,' Rosie says. She had written: 'To my family, I'm really sorry for what I'm putting
you through.' To David, she wrote: 'I love you and I want you to fall in love with somebody else.' There was a message to a boyfriend she had in Cambridge when she was younger, saying thank you. There were long outpourings. She wrote:
'I feel like a very old person, as if I'm 100 years old. I can't bear to stay in this world another moment. I feel it's some sort of euthanasia. I'm not meant to live beyond this age.'
The sites are easily available via everyday search engines. Although many seek to help (some provide suicide prevention hotline phone numbers), others give advice on suicide techniques or lead to chatrooms occupied by suicidal people, creating an atmosphere where suicide is considered an acceptable way out, something to be encouraged. They make for macabre reading. The sites have their own euphemisms: 'catching the bus' refers to the act of suicide, while being 'at the bus stop' indicates you are considering suicide. The word 'holiday' can also mean suicide.
One site lists more than 50 drugs and poisons that can be used to commit suicide, and details how easy they are to obtain, followed by the length of time it takes to reach unconsciousness, and the length of time before death. The possible side-effects – nausea, bloody diarrhoea, sweating, dilation of pupils, convulsion, renal failure and so on – are chronicled. Then other methods are listed, with practical details such as the drop height required for your weight if you are contemplating hanging yourself. Anyone planning to jump in front of a train is urged to bear in mind a high-speed train needs a kilometre to stop.
On another site, in bold type, is the question, 'What is the best way to kill yourself when you are under 13?' It is followed by a request for your name and email address. Once you are inside, there are scores of hopeless messages, from youngsters who describe life as a 'dark black hole', and who say, 'I can't live another day.' Interspersed are messages of hope – 'a bright day will come' – but they are few and far between.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in the 15-19 age group, six people per 100,000 in Britain killed themselves in 2008. In relative terms, the youth suicide statistics for Britain are low – fifth from the bottom in a table of 30, compared with New Zealand (32 per 100,000) and Finland (24 per 100,000) at the top of the table. Yet the figures are ambiguous; some deaths are not identified as suicide because of lack of evidence of intent at an inquest.
According to Papyrus, a group founded in 1997 to prevent young suicide, internet sites have 'played a part' in 39 known cases of suicide among young people. The group, a national charity, wants the Government to make it illegal for internet sites to publish material that has the purpose of encouraging and aiding suicide. It also supports families, friends, medics, mental health professionals, prison staff and others working with young people.
Of the cases it mentions, nine are under 18 – the youngest is 13 – the rest in the 18-25 age group (three quarters are male). Paul Kelly joined the group in 2003 after his son, Simon, then 18, killed himself on the day his parents returned from holiday, despite having given them no cause for concern about his state of mind. Yet notes found after Simon's death in July 2001 revealed that he had suffered from depression for about three months. Now Paul is a trustee and secretary of Papyrus and he coordinates the campaign for the regulation of internet suicide websites.
'The 39 cases are those that have been clearly reported in the press where the police have said there's an internet connection, or where the parents have approached Papyrus and I have spoken to them personally,' Kelly explains. 'They have often found diaries, or websites on the computer's history, which have indicated their children have used suicide chatrooms. Sometimes notes have been left, acknowledging the role that the internet has played. I'm not blaming the internet for suicide – that's been around for a long time – but one of the main factors is the availability of the means.
'When you're suicidal, you think in more detail. You want to know if it will be painful, what the chances of success are, how easy it would be for others to intervene, for example. All those questions can be answered clearly, and in most cases in great detail, on the internet, which is immediately accessible. In a modern society, to have that so easily available in one's own room is dangerous.
'Youngsters don't think logically in the same way as an adult. If you can intervene between the decision and the act of suicide, people can be saved, I'm sure. Years ago the information was out there, but it was in books and it would take time and effort to get hold of, creating quite a delay. The internet is an instant medium.'
To date, there has been no successful British prosecution for promoting suicide online. For one to succeed, it is most likely the victim has to meet face-to-face with the person who wishes to assist in his or her death. Since 2003 Papyrus has delivered two petitions – one presented to Downing Street, the other online – seeking a review of the 1961 Suicide Act, compiled in pre-internet days. The Government said it would back recommendations made in March 2008 in a report written by the clinical psychologist and parenting expert Tanya Byron, who proposed the creation of a UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which would be chaired by the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Nothing has happened so far.
One coroner, Phillip Walters, also promised to investigate links between social networking websites and a spate of suicides in Bridgend, south Wales, where there were 24 known suicide deaths between January 2007 and December 2008. Mr Walters, the coroner for Bridgend and Glamorgan Valleys, said he would look at the sites for clues as to how they might have encouraged young people to commit suicide.
In April 2008 the case of a computer analyst, Gary Howes, went before Preston Crown Court. The 44-year-old, from Chesham, Buckinghamshire, posted a message on the internet offering
to help suicide attempts. He was charged after
a newspaper reporter went undercover, posing as
a depressed 16-year-old girl and a bullied 14-year-old boy. The court heard how Howes had offered a method he described as 'painless and quick'
to commit suicide and he assured the reporter it could be arranged quickly. But he was cleared of three charges of attempting to help a person commit or attempt suicide. Ruling there was insufficient evidence, Judge Slinger said the Crown had to prove the defendant intended to assist in a suicide or attempt a suicide.
'The judge indicated that if Gary Howes had met the victims, the case
would have been a lot stronger,' Paul Kelly says. 'I have met ministers and their standard response is that the law is perfectly adequate, but they plan to revise the language in the 1961 Suicide Act and it is hoped it will make it clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. In a sense, that will be a step forward.'
Kelly has no doubt that the internet played 'a big role' in his son's suicide. He has never disclosed the way in which Simon, whom he describes as 'an ideal son, who never gave us any problems', killed himself. 'According to the police, the knowledge Simon used in his death could only have come from the internet. He left a note in which he acknowledged the internet's help. He knew even then, back in 2001, that if he hadn't done it correctly, he could have ended up in a wheelchair. He researched it very fully.'
For Ziggy Wilson and her family, the legacy of a failed suicide attempt is one that will be with them for ever. After six weeks in a coma, Ziggy's first word was 'boots', referring to the plastic splints on her calves to keep her legs straight, which hurt her. The language side of her brain was unaffected. She can still read and spell and she even remembers her schoolgirl French. Gradually, with physiotherapy, she started to take the odd step, but one consultant told her parents, 'It's like she's had a lobotomy. She will be like a toddler for the rest of her life.'
'She asks if she gets pocket money and says The Little Mermaid is her favourite film,' Rosie says. 'When she came out of hospital she looked around and asked where her toys were. But at other times she says she's trying to piece together her life to work out who she is and what she's good at. She thinks she killed Frances and she's Ziggy now. She has even asked me to take her to see Frances's grave. She was at Fen House in Ely, a part of Birt [Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust], for 18 months and she asked me why she was there because she wasn't disabled. I had to explain that she was disabled. A clinical psychologist suggested I show her her suicide diary. It was agony to do it and she cried the whole weekend. She has no memory of trying to hang herself. But the psychologist was right. Each time we've looked at it, her reaction has become less, until now she just shrugs when we talk about it.
'What has become of Ziggy is so horrific. She looks vacant and ungainly. At first she was doubly incontinent, not now. She's a size 16 and she has a very strange gait when she walks. She sounds disabled when she speaks, and she can talk only in very short sentences. For example, if you ask her how she is, she will answer, "I'm feeling tired". A year of her memory has gone, yet she's defied doctors by proving she can learn new things, like her postcode.'
Ziggy now lives in a housing association flat, and has carers on rotas. Her accommodation and care is funded by Cambridge's social care department. Her parents bought all the furniture for her new flat when she moved in May last year. They also pay for her to spend a day a week with a charity that offers art activities for disabled people. Her father goes once a week to see her and she spends Sunday afternoons at the family home with her mother, father and brother.
'Ziggy needs to be woken in the morning,' Rosie says, 'and she needs help getting dressed. She's a messy eater – she can use a fork and a spoon – and she has to have her teeth brushed and her hair washed for her. Her carers take her for walks to the river or window shopping or they watch TV and I take her to Headway in Cambridge, for people with brain injuries, three mornings a week. On Sundays I take her out to town, we have lunch in a cafe and we look around the shops, then we come home and spend the rest of the afternoon here. We've been told she has a normal life expectancy, though her condition could be regressive and she may develop Parkinson's Disease.
'I'm one of those rare parents who didn't want their daughter returning to them profoundly brain-damaged. The lack of oxygen to her brain had caused extensive damage. I wanted to bring her home and let her die with dignity. Even now I get feelings of absolute panic. Has it really happened? For a split second I wonder, then the agony will hit me. Sometimes I get this sense of unreality, a feeling that Ziggy has gone away for two years. But she is still here, just not the Ziggy we knew.'
Recently Ziggy has been put back on high doses of anti-depressants. To cope with a future 'too dark and frightening', in August 2008 Rosie enrolled in the Hoffman Process, an eight-day intensive personal development course that teaches its students to resolve persistent negative feelings. 'It allowed me to forgive myself,' Rosie says, 'and it helped me to have hope. There's no parent who has a child who tries to commit suicide who doesn't blame themselves. I questioned a lot of things – was I a good enough mother to Ziggy throughout her teens? But ultimately, through visualisation and the various exercises,
I allowed myself to feel less guilty and I have a different outlook on life. Now I focus my energy on something positive, helping Papyrus and campaigning to get these websites closed down. Whenever I hear of another suicide, I think, "Oh my God, not again, what a waste."
'My husband and I had plans to go to New Zealand for a year and to do Voluntary Service Overseas in Africa. All the things we were looking forward to when we retire will never happen now. Instead I worry what will happen to Ziggy when we're dead.
'We alternate between hope and despair. I wonder what would have happened if we could have seen our own GP, if Ziggy could have had different treatment. Our life is full of could-haves. Through Papyrus I've talked to people whose children have committed suicide. However awful it was, they go through the grieving process and they have some kind of closure. That's something we will never have.'
The Papyrus Hopeline UK: 08000-684141; papyrus-uk.org. The Hoffman Process: 01903-889990; hoffmaninstitute.co.uk