Where is mental health in the election?

An Cailín Rua

Anne-Marie Flynn

LAST Thursday, while our political leaders prepared for the first TV debate of the general election campaign, hundreds of ordinary people gathered together by candlelight outside Leinster House to remember the short life of Caoilte O’Broin.
Twenty-eight year-old Caoilte’s body was taken from the River Liffey on January 2, in a tragedy his family feel was entirely avoidable, and one that has started a new conversation throughout Ireland about the deficiencies in our mental health system.
Back in December, a harrowing letter, written by Caoilte’s sister under a pseudonym, appeared on the website Joe.ie. In it, she outlined her desperation at having nowhere to turn for help for her ill brother; fearing for his life because his family was unable to get him the support he needed.
Caoilte had struggled with his mental health for most of his life, beginning to self-harm in his teens, self-medicating with alcohol. By the time his family realised just how serious his problems were and that he desperately needed help, he was an adult, and they found themselves shut out.  
The letter described the horror of watching his decline; his withdrawal from society, self-harm, severe alcohol and medication abuse and lack of self-care. He made several suicide attempts. In the middle of this stress, the family lost their father, but were unable to even grieve, as subsequently, Caoilte experienced severe, violent psychosis. Screaming, he would slam his head into walls, smash things, threaten and attack his family. At night, fearing for their safety, they would lock their doors.

They refused to seek a barring order; Caoilte was not a criminal, but someone with a mental illness. “He will switch in an instant,” his sister wrote, “to a grown man sobbing great, broken-hearted sobs, crying out how sorry he is, how worthless he is, that no-one can help him. But we reassure ourselves that as long as he still breathes, we have hope.”
Numerous times, he was admitted to the psychiatric unit, but his deep distrust of authority led him to lie to doctors, drastically under-reporting his symptoms. He would arrive home, for the same thing to happen again. Terrified and desperate for help, his family wrote to his psychiatrist, requesting meetings to discuss his diagnosis and treatment, but to no avail. They attempted to get him committed, but were refused on the basis that as long as Caoilte was drinking, no assistance was available. The link between his substance abuse and psychiatric problems his family felt, was not acknowledged by the system. They feared the worst. In December, his sister wrote: “If he does not get the help he needs, he will die at his own hand.”
Caoilte checked himself out of hospital on December 29. His family were not informed. Four days later, his body was found.

This Friday, Caoilte’s family will appear on the Late Late Show to tell his story. Adamant that they do not wish to cast blame, they are instead campaigning to ensure that necessary changes are made to ensure that no other family ever has to experience the needless loss of a loved one to mental illness.
Many families across Ireland, even across Mayo, will empathise. Many, watching a loved one struggle, will feel excluded from their medical care, unable to give vital information that would inform their treatment and ensure their and their family’s safety. Many more will feel angry that we celebrate alcohol consumption so freely in Ireland, yet are happy to ignore its effects on our mental health, while simultaneously denying those who fall victim to it the treatment they desperately need.
In the midst of a general election campaign, the issue of mental health is not sexy; it is not a vote-winner, nor do the failures of the system make the headlines like A&E crises. Yet, these deficiencies endanger far more lives. Our suicide statistics make that very clear. We would do well to remember that and to demand change when canvassers knock on our doors,
Because, you see, Caoilte could have been anyone’s brother. The nature of mental illness means no-one is immune. The only hope we can have is that his tragic death is not in vain, and that it paves the way for a system where no-one who needs and deserves help is denied.