By Barry Lord
A 24/7 health service for sufferers of depression and other mental health issues must be available or families will continued to be devastated by suicide.
That is the belief of Patricia Byrne, who suffered her own devastating loss in January this year when her eldest son 20-year-old Stephen took his short life after battling depression. Stephen, dad of two-year-old Ava, had been missing for several days before his body was found.
Patricia, from Ballymun, Dublin, spoke to Ireland Today about the nightmare she lives through every day, burdened by guilt and grief and deeply frustrated by a health system she believes is mired in bureaucratic red tape and lacking in common sense.
“A 24/7 health system is the only solution to helping people trapped by mental health problems, people like my son,” said Patricia. “God help you if you need to see a doctor and it’s outside of office hours. If you’re suffering then your only alternative is to sit in the A&E department and that’s not the right environment for someone with a mental health condition. It’s something that has to change.”
Patricia recalled her efforts to get Stephen the help he desperately required. When they managed to get an appointment at Dublin’s Beaumont Hospital, she believed help would soon be at hand, but optimism turned to despair after the consultation.
“I wasn’t allowed in to the consultation room with Stephen because he was 20 and no longer classed as a child. Medical practitioners only deal in confidentiality with adults, even those suffering mental health problems. I appreciate those are the rules, but even a 20-year-old needs his mother sometimes.”
When Stephen emerged from the consultation, Patricia was given more cause for concern. “I’ll never forget seeing Stephen holding a piece of paper, obviously torn off one corner of a page, with a number for a drug and alcohol helpline,” remembers Patricia.
“I told the doctor Stephen didn’t have alcohol or drug problems, but it made no difference. Stephen turned round and said to the doctor as we were leaving ‘If someone doesn’t help me, I’ll be dead in a week.’
The harrowing day came to pass when Stephen died after demons had haunted his young life and Patricia remembers the last time she saw her son, as she fought with herself whether to let him walk away from her.
“I had only left Stephen to go to pick my youngest son Dylan from school and he had smiled at me so I thought he was okay,” said Patricia.
“But as I walked off to get the bus, I got this strange feeling. Something telling me I shouldn’t leave him that day, but I didn’t want to smother him so I got the bus. I remember it was January and freezing and I kept phoning to check on him and there was no answer. He phoned me back eventually, saying ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m after talking to the baby. Can you tell the baby I love her to bits, Ma. I love you, I’m sorry.’
Now Patricia is determined not to be a lone voice for change in the health system. Since her son’s death, she has been rallying TDs to aid her quest for change and can count Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Pat Buckley among her supporters.
In fact, Mr Buckley shared Patricia’s story in the Dail recently and pledged to be “Stephen’s voice” – to speak out for all mental health patients let down by the system.
Patricia said: “If my story prevents one family having to suffer in this way, some good will have come of this grief.”