Paragraph 10 reads: "Shane was prescribed anti-depressants. Soon, he had returned to Australia, with a job lined up at a landscaping firm. He wanted to give it another go, and his girlfriend was still there. Less than a week later, there was another phone call: he was in hospital, injured and disorientated."
The Irish Times – Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Shane was buried on Christmas Eve. They shook hands at the church for more than two hours. After the funeral, they went home to prepare for Santa Claus.
STORIES OF SUICIDE: Shane D’Alton went off to back pack and work in Australia for a year – but died after a short bout of depression, aged 23. His father now wants to make sure other vulnerable young people get the help they need
SHANE D’ALTON’s bright red Nissan Navara SUV was his most prized possession. It still had the plastic advert stuck to the door from when it was on display at the dealership. “It’s rude to stare,” it said, in bold silver print. He kept it on for months afterwards.
“He loved it,” says his father, Eddie. “It was all about the car, the clothes, the shades, the hair. He was at his happiest driving around in it.”
It fitted his personality. He was outgoing, never far from the centre of attention, always standing out from the crowd. He was good-looking too; he was never without a girlfriend for long. As well as being popular, he had a more sensitive side that many didn’t see. If a friend was in distress, he would call over and make sure they were okay.
A qualified electrician, he was determined to enjoy life and party, come what may.
He decided to leave home in Knocklyon, Dublin, and head to Australia in the summer of 2008 – not because there was a recession looming, but because he wanted to live a little. He was 23 years old. Life, he told his Dad, was too short to spend working on sites for the rest of his life.
The work idea took a back seat for the first few weeks. Instead, he partied like there was no tomorrow. His girlfriend was there, money wasn’t a problem because he had sold his beloved 4×4, and he had plenty of savings. It seemed like he was on one, long, uninterrupted holiday. That was until his family received a phone call: he was upset and he wanted to come home.
“I thought maybe he was homesick. He’d been away for six or seven weeks by that stage. I collected him at the airport and he was crying, which was very unlike him. I was very close with him, we did lots of things together: clay-pigeon shooting, sports, you name it, but I hadn’t seen him like this before.”
He was diagnosed with depression by his local GP. No one knew where it had come from or what might have triggered it. His father was surprised; maybe he was just feeling sorry for himself that he didn’t last the pace in Australia? Or maybe he was just homesick?
Shane was prescribed anti-depressants. Soon, he had returned to Australia, with a job lined up at a landscaping firm. He wanted to give it another go, and his girlfriend was still there. Less than a week later, there was another phone call: he was in hospital, injured and disorientated.
He had been out on the beach, which turned into a bender of a night. He got drunk – though he wasn’t supposed to drink on the medication – mugged, injured and his passport was stolen. When the police found him, they admitted him to hospital. Concerned for his son, his father left for Australia. It wasn’t so much the physical injuries as his mental well-being he was concerned about. The doctor who assessed him also concluded Shane had depression which needed to be treated,
“I remember the doctor saying: ‘We take depression very seriously in this country – in six weeks, we can sort it out if you leave him here with us’. I thought about it, but it was close to Christmas. I figured he’d be better off at home, surrounded by family and friends. He had medical insurance, so he’d be bound to get decent treatment. Looking back, that was a big mistake.”
THE TREATMENT AT home, when he got it, seemed unresponsive, disorganised and ineffective. He had been admitted to the psychiatric unit of a Dublin public hospital. The doctors wanted to admit him as a voluntary patient, to which Shane agreed. He just wanted to get better, he told his Dad. In an assessment with his GP, he admitted to cutting himself once, but baulked when he saw the sight of blood. He wouldn’t do it again, he insisted.
“I didn’t really think much of it. I thought maybe he was mouthing it off. Suicide or self-harm didn’t really register, it didn’t seriously enter my head,” Eddie recalls.
At the psychiatric unit, his father was shocked at the conditions. They had health insurance and figured they would get a good quality of care – but it was, he says, like a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“There was a woman in a bloodied nightdress, just following people around. Another guy was in bed, just cursing and swearing. My wife was very upset, I was very upset. I couldn’t see how that was an appropriate environment to get better.
Shane knew it as well: he didn’t want anyone visiting him in the unit, so we’d ring in advance and meet in the coffee dock.”
Eddie was also unhappy with the speed of treatment. His son was told within a few days of being admitted that a psychologist would get his file and see him. Several days later, it still hadn’t happened.
In the meantime, he could see Shane was going downhill, growing more despondent.
His Dad left messages with the relevant consultant over the course of a few days, but only got a response on the Friday evening: they were going to discharge him for the weekend to see how he got on. He still hadn’t been seen by a psychiatrist, despite spending almost a week in the unit.
Shane arrived home on the Saturday; he didn’t say much. Liverpool – his favourite team – were playing a match on TV, but he didn’t watch much of it. One of his favourite cousins was up visiting, but Shane wasn’t much in the mood for talking.
That evening, his parents went out for dinner. Their cousin was minding their daughter, while Shane stayed in his bedroom. They came back at 11pm and checked on Shane; when the girls laughed that Shane had been snoring loudly, his parents looked at each other: he never snored. They went in and couldn’t wake him; there was an empty packet of drugs and he had taken them all. On the side-table were four suicide notes, written for different family members and friends.
They called an ambulance and Eddie tried to give him mouth to mouth; Shane still seemed to be breathing and his heart was beating. When the ambulance came, they worked on him some more, but he was fading fast. He was taken away in an ambulance, but it was too late. Within an hour, he was dead.
The grief and guilt arrived in waves. The what ifs and the maybes haunted them: what if we had come home half an hour earlier? What if the restaurant we first tried wasn’t booked out and we were eating closer to home? What if we had left him in Australia, would the treatment have been better?
Eddie knows there were some risks – but did he take them seriously enough? Should he have made sure there were no tablets in the house?
There was anger too; he remembers kicking the wall in frustration,
not knowing how to get rid of the tension inside him.
The funeral was heartbreaking. They shook hands at the church for more than two hours. Hundreds of family, friends, work colleagues crammed into the Mass. Shane had died on December 21st and was buried on Christmas Eve. After the funeral, they went home to prepare for Santa Claus.
“That was very, very hard,” Eddie says, his voice tightening. “Christmas will never, ever be the same again. We’ll be eternally grateful to all the support we’ve had from family and friends – especially Shane’s friends who still call us to this day and bring flowers to the cemetery.”
Looking back, he thinks his son felt his depression was something he couldn’t shake off. He seemed to think he was stuck in a hole he couldn’t get out of.
“The more he tried, the deeper he fell. In the end it was very short-lived, it was just a few months. We had absolutely no inclination before that he would ever do anything like this. You’ve got to remember what a happy- go-lucky kind of guy he was . . . If Shane could have seen the love people had for him.”
ON TOP OF grief, there was a gnawing frustration with the Irish health system.
“I feel dreadfully let down by the health service here. That’s why I think I maybe should have left him in Australia.
“I feel sorry for other people in our position. That’s why I’m studying counselling – I want to be able to help people. In future, I’ll be able to help people.”
He has since met the doctors at the hospital who explained that not seeing a specialist in the first week was not unusual; they also said there was little to suggest that Shane was such a risk. Faced with the same decision again, one of the consultants said he would still have discharged him. His father says if he had realised this was going to be the response his son would get, he would have got private counselling or treatment to address Shane’s problems immediately.
Eddie is still coming to terms with the loss of his son. The bereavement group Console has helped bring him through the different cycles of anger, guilt, as well as dealing with the incessant questions. The brave face he wore in public often broke down in tears during those sessions.
Over the months and years it has got easier to deal with, but the emotional burden of a death by suicide is a life sentence, he says.
“I heard a saying: ‘It’s not that the weight gets lighter, but your shoulders get stronger’. That’s the way I feel.”
Eddie is now determined to help other people in crisis, or families who do not know what to do with a loved one who is in a vulnerable condition. Tackling the widespread ignorance about mental health problems is a key priority.
“This time two years ago, I had no idea what depression was. I used to think it was someone feeling sorry for themselves. I’ve learned a lot and read a lot in the meantime, but in general, I think most people don’t have a clue. I see how widespread it is now. I get a lot of calls from people looking for advice. No one is immune from depression.”
His advice to people in crisis is to seek help from groups such as Pieta House, a facility which he says should be replicated across the country, while he says the life support service is an important source of help.
He is also determined to do his own bit in spreading awareness about suicide. “My goal in life is to train to become a counsellor, to help other people. I don’t want people to go through what we’ve gone through. I’m also keen to tell Shane’s story in schools, to help spread awareness. Positive mental health is something we need to have on the school curriculum. Even just a few hours – those kinds of things could make all the difference.”
DO YOU NEED HELP?
If you or someone you know is in crisis now and needs someone to talk to:
- 1Life (1life.ie) Call 1800 24 7 100 or text HELP to 51444 for one to one text support.
- Samaritans (samaritans.org) Call 1850 609090 (Republic of Ireland) or 08457 909090 (UK including Northern Ireland)
- Pieta House (pieta.ie), the centre for the prevention of self-harm or suicide, 01-601 0000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- Console (console.ie). This charity for the bereaved has a free helpline at 1800-201890
- Aware (aware.ie) which helps people with depression has a helpline at 1890-303302.
- HeadsUp (headsup.ie) a mental-health project aimed at 15- to 24-year-olds, has afree 24-hour text service available by texting HEADSUP to 50424.
- Reach Out (reachout.com) is a website aimed at helping young people through tough times.
- Spun Out (spunout.ie) is another website which is run by young people to help address issues such as stress and positive mental health.