It takes a special kind of courage to stand up in public and talk about an illness that our society barely acknowledges yet alone speaks about. Yet Gary Fitzgibbon made a presentation to Shannon Municipal District’s July meeting and spoke openly about his struggle to cope with depression over the last five years.
Gary’s mother is a well known public health nurse in Shannon, but even with that kind of family support, he soon found that there are major deficiencies when it comes to treating mental health issues in this country.
On any online advice website, the first thing you will learn is that a person with a mental health issue should present at their nearest A&E.
Astonishingly, Gary Fitzgibbon claimed that Clare people attending A&E at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) have been refused treatment because they don’t have a Limerick address.
Introducing Gary at the start of the meeting, Cllr Gerry Flynn recalled speaking with him back in February and praised the great work the young man is doing to highlight the need for better mental health services.
Gary Fitzgibbon spoke of receiving care for his depression over the last five years including two occasions when he was in suicide distress.
Due to an awareness of the stigma and the silence around mental health, Gary believes there is an urgent need for suicide prevention services in the Shannon, Newmarket-on-Fergus and Sixmiilebridge area.
Since the closure of the A&E department at Ennis Hospital, Clare residents are referred on to Limerick but according to Gary Fitzgibbon, “they won’t treat you, they won’t admit you and they are sending people on their way.”
He also claimed that staff in UHL are advising patients not to present at the psychiatric unit in Ennis as they won’t be treated without first meeting with the Community Mental Health Team.
Gary urged councillors to use their influence with the Health Minister and HSE management to address this urgent issue.
“This is the main reason I am here,” he said adding, “I’m sure you will agree that it is not unreasonable to ask that people who reach out for help actually receive the treatment that they obviously need,” said Gary.
While under the care of Clare Mental Health Services, Gary met and befriended other patients. Councillors appeared shocked when he spoke of personally knowing two people being cared for who took their own lives in the last three months.
According to Gary, the Minister for Health recently stated that services are being stretched because so many people are being referred to the mental health system or CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
In his view, people in suicide distress are being referred to CAMHS because no other service is available.
“This is an issue that knows no political divide, it can affect all of us,” said Gary Fitzgibbon, “all I ask is that you use your influence to ensure that anyone in suicidal distress who presents at A&E in Limerick doesn’t get turned away, because that’s what’s happening.
“I genuinely believe that lives have been lost as a result of that policy and I think it is very preventable,” said Gary.
Relating what he has witnessed at first hand, Gary said he attended A&E in Limerick twice in suicide distress and was discharged within a few hours with no follow-up care. “It’s just not good enough,” he said.
Cllr Gerry Flynn assured him that Shannon Municipal District would communicate the concerns to the HSE and to members of the Oireachtas in Clare.
Cllr Pat McMahon said that he is aware of the situation with regard to mental health services but admitted he was still shocked to hear Gary’s first-hand experience. “Where do we start and how do we tackle this,” he asked?
Cllr John Crowe said it is a very bizarre situation that someone’s address is taken into account when seeking urgent medical services. “It is frightening that people find themselves in a situation with nowhere to go,” he said.
Responding to the points made, Gary Fitzgibbon recommended that the politicians should inform themselves of the SafeTalk programme which explains how to make an initial engagement with someone in distress.
For those looking for somewhere to start, Gary pointed to the GAA family. As a long-time member of Wolfe Tones, his intervention has resulted in the club moving to appoint a mental health liaison officer.
“GAA clubs all over the country play a bigger role in their communities than they are given credit for.,” said Gary adding, “In my own club, I know two lads in suicidal distress at the moment and a few others who are touch and go.
“I had this conversation with the chairman of Wolfe Tones. Initially, he was taken aback when I suggested that the club should give a lead on this issue as it’s obviously something that affects every town and village.
“With the appointment of a liaison officer, someone in crisis can go to that person and ask for help or advice. That could be replicated in other sporting organisations and community groups, it doesn’t have to be a GAA club,” said Gary.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 800,000 people die each year by suicide. According to WHO failure to invest in treatment for common mental health illnesses, such as depression, resulting in a global economic cost of a trillion US dollars every year.