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Sydney Coroner’s Court
30 January, 2015
An inquest touching the death of Alec Meikle opened at the Coroners Court, Glebe [New South Wales, Australia]on 2 December 2013 and concluded on 12 December 2013. Ten parties, including Alec’s parents, were granted leave to appear and were represented at the inquest. A six volume brief of evidence assembled by Detective Sergeant Joel Faulkner, the officer in charge of the NSW Police investigation, was tendered. The brief included the brief of evidence prepared by Inspector
Ian Batty of the NSW Workcover Authority. Sixteen witnesses gave oral evidence.
Richard John Meikle, Alec’s father, gave evidence. He spoke of Alec’s background, schooling, future career hopes and his excitement at obtaining an apprenticeship at Downer. He also explained the changes he and his wife noticed to Alec’s demeanour, language and general attitude a couple of months into his employment.
Mr Meikle said that on a weekend in May 2008 he was so concerned that he sat down with Alec and discussed his situation with him. He made notes of what he was told and later produced a typed two page document the contents of which were confirmed by Alec. The document recorded a number of incidents that had occurred during the course of Alec’s employment at Downer including allegations of work colleagues setting fire to his welding glasses whilst they were on him, holding his arm down and burning his hand with an oxy-torch, sabotaging his work and a chart that was constructed on which were recorded the errors that Alec made. This chart threatened that if Alec reached a certain number of errors a steel dildo would be inserted into his anus. The chart was known as the Sphincter Dilation Chart. The document prepared by his father also recorded allegations of general belittling and abuse that Alec had experienced in his employment at Downer.
Mr Meikle then went and saw Mr Greg Smith the Facility Manager at Downer and gave him the document. Mr Meikle then outlined his observations of Alec’s condition and his response to the treatment that he received. He said that by early July 2008 he and his wife had decided that Alec should leave Bathurst and return to New Zealand. Alec was also very keen to return to New Zealand. They intended to do that in about October 2008 however after the incident on 27 August 2008 when Alec attempted self-harm they brought the decision forward and it was agreed that Alec and his mother should leave earlier. They did so on 3 September 2008.
Mr Meikle was, as a father who had concerns for his son, kept in contact with Alec following his son’s return to New Zealand. Indeed he initially phoned him every night. This occurred for about ten days before Alec asked him to stop. Mr Meikle was asked whether or not Alec expressed any thoughts of self harm to him in this time and his response was:
‘No. no, on the – exactly the opposite. Exactly the opposite. After about ten days I – well, he asked me to stop ringing every night; it was embarrassing, you know, a 17 year old boy being checked on by his dad so we more or less agreed two or three time a week was appropriate and we had good chats.
Mr Meikle outlined the medical and other support that was arranged for Alec on his return to New Zealand. He said that he was happy with the facilities that were available to assist Alec.
Dr Samantha Stevens gave evidence. She was at the time a general medical practitioner practicing in Bathurst. She first saw Alec on 27 May 2008 when he attended with his mother. At the time Alec described stress from incidents at work and felt down and anxious. His appetite was okay but he felt agitated over the weekend. He had occasional thoughts of suicide but had no plans or intent. He had no drug or alcohol issues. Dr Stevens recorded a number of allegations made by Alec including that of an assault. At the time she diagnosed that Alec was suffering from ‘workplace harassment and assault (set on fire).’ Dr Stevens put him off work until there was a WorkCover workplace assessment. She also gave Alec a referral for counselling.
Dr Stevens next saw Alec on 29 May 2008 at which time Alec said that he had depression and anxiety symptoms from workplace harassment and alleged assaults. He told Dr Stevens that he was feeling better and agreed that he needed counselling. On 5 June 2008 when he next saw her he again said that he was feeling better.
On 19 June 2008 Dr Stevens saw Alec. At that time Alec disclosed that his symptoms were more serious than he had first disclosed. He said that he had been bullied from about the third day of his employment and that his depression symptoms had started about three months later. Alec also disclosed to her that in May 2008 he had had serious suicidal ideation and considered jumping in front of a train.
Dr Stevens saw Alec again on 26 June 2008 where he again expressed suicidal ideation during the previous weekend and once again considered jumping in front of a train. Dr Stevens then contacted Ms Natasha Mann, a psychologist, and asked that a risk of self-harm assessment be undertaken.
She also notified the Department of Community Service as she considered that he was a young person at risk of harm. On 27 June 2008 Natasha Mann contacted Dr Stevens and recommended that she commence Alec on the antidepressant medication Fluoxetine. Ms Mann also recommended that Alec be referred to a psychiatrist Dr Frukacz.
On 21 August 2008 Dr Stevens saw Alec with his mother after he had had a difficult week. He had had final sessions with Peter Perisce on 13 August 2008 and with Natasha Mann on 7 August 2008 Mrs Meikle expressed concern that Alec continued to need counselling and that it had stopped too soon. Contact was made with a new organisation ‘Headspace’ which was a specialist child and adolescent counselling service that had recently been established in Bathurst. An appointment was made for Alec to see them on 28 August 2008.
On 27 August 2008 Alec attempted self-harm. He reported that he had attempted to hang himself at his home using a belt however the belt had snapped. After that incident the decision was made by Mr and Mrs Meikle that Alec should return to New Zealand immediately. On 29 August 2008 Dr Stevens received a fax from Mr Meikle asking that Alec’s medical records be sent to New Zealand. Dr Stevens then had a conversation with Mr Meikle and suggested that Alec be taken to a hospital for assessment. Dr Stevens ‘s evidence was that Mr Meikle did not think that was necessary as Alec’s mood had improved since it had been decided to return to New Zealand. Dr Stevens maintained her concern and asked that the Community Mental Health Team assess Alec.
Dr Stevens saw Alec for the last time on 2 September 2008. At that time Dr Stevens considered that Alec was safe to go to New Zealand. She recorded in her notes, in part, that:
He feels much better; he is going to New Zealand with mum. His mood this week is good with no reported suicidal ideation. Sleeping well … agrees to see new GP in New Zealand over the next week if possible. Parents aware of the importance of a mental health review urgently if suicide thoughts again.
Dr Stevens was asked her opinion as to the involvement of bullying of Alec at St Stanislaus College in the development of the condition that manifested itself in 2008. She thought that such events were non-significant and that it was the work incidents at Downer that were the precipitating factor for his condition of major depression…
Dr Andrew Frukacz gave evidence. Dr Frukacz is a psychiatrist to whom Alec was referred by Dr Stevens. He first spoke to Alec on 8 July 2008. Alec gave a history to him of difficulties he had experienced in his employment at Downer. Alec told him that he was being yelled at by his supervisor and other
employees, constantly told he was doing a bad job, was burnt by an oxy torch and other matters. At the time of him seeing Dr Frukacz he was observed to be anxious. Alec also told Dr Frukacz that he had been bullied as a student at St Stanislaus College because of his background of coming from New
At the time Dr Frukacz saw Alec he had already commenced taking antidepressant medication and said that he was feeling better and happier. Dr Frukacz believed that he should continue on the medication for about six months.
After Dr Frukacz saw Alec he advised Dr Stevens, in part, that:
I would therefore suggest that he remain on the Fluoxetine at least for a period of six months after he returns to New Zealand and becomes settled there. At that time Fluoxetine could be reduced to 10mg mane for a period of four weeks, after which it could be ceased. However, he should continue to be assessed on at least a monthly basis by his general practitioner to ensure that there is no further deterioration in his mood. As he has already shown improvement since going off work I do not feel that he requires any further psychological treatment at this stage unless he wishes to do some work on his self-esteem. However, if he continues to have problems with his mood, then psychological work involving counselling aimed at improving his self-esteem as well as assertiveness would be appropriate treatment.
Dr Frukacz said in evidence that he thought that Alec returning to New Zealand would be a good idea as he thought it would remove Alec from the source of his distress and place him in a supportive environment that would assist his recovery. As to Alec’s prognosis Dr Frukacz thought that, so long as
Alec was not in a situation of being harassed, it was relatively good. As to the risk that Alec would self-harm Dr Frukacz thought that although unpredictable the risk was low. Dr Frukacz explained that he had reached this conclusion because:
‘he was away from a stressful situation and was planning to do good things that he was looking forward to such as his return to New Zealand …although he was anxious, he was also quite reactive so he could smile at times when talking about things in the interview that he
was looking forward to. So I thought that provided he was no longer in a situation of being harassed then he had a relatively good prognosis.’
Dr Frukacz was asked whether, from his assessment of Alec, he had been able to form an opinion about the factors contributing to the development of his mental health condition. He thought that, from the history he had obtained, the events that had occurred in Alec’s employment at Downer were:
‘The sole contributing factor to the development of his anxiety, depressive or post-traumatic condition. He had alluded to being harassed in the school; he had some counselling but clearly he – it never got to the point where he had to be on medication or see a psychiatrist at that time.’
It was only after Alec’s death that Dr Frukacz become aware of the attempted self-harm by Alec on 27 August 2008. As to the circumstances of Alec’s death in New Zealand on 13 October 2008 Dr Frukacz was asked whether from his assessment of Alec he had observed any warning signs of the possibility that Alec might self-harm. Dr Fruckacz said in reply:
Look this tragedy highlights the tragedy of youth suicide in general that it is an unpredictable event and there are warning or there are risk factors that people talk about and of course in Alec’s case his past stating of suicidal ideation and his attempts would he one of the
significant risk factors; the fact that he had been diagnosed with a mental health condition would be another risk factor, but the risk factors are very general and unfortunately we’re not very good at being able to tease out the fine details of when a person is actually going to carry out threats of suicide, put those plans into action. I’m not aware of anything that will allow people to pick that up in a way that will prevent this tragedy, this tragic death, particularly in a young person where we know that young people are more impulsive, tend to be more
Dr Fruckacz whilst giving evidence was asked about whether he had, from the information he had been provided, formed an opinion as to what might have been the catalyst for the events that led to Alec’s death. He said that there were various theories of suicide. He described some of the theories as
Some people see it as a sort of anger expressed inwardly; other people will think of it as a statement of utter despair and hopelessness; other people will see it as an impulsive act done at a time of distress where the consequences are not thought of.
Applying these theories to Alec’s situation Dr Fruckacz said that:
I think that you could kind of think of all these things but it would be difficult to point to one particular situation I guess. On would need to really kind of look at what had happened in the one or two hours beforehand, even the 24 hours beforehand because as I say particularly in people of Alec’s age, these things seem to develop and develop a life of their own, very quickly for reasons that don’t often make sense in looking back. It could be one particular event that has triggered off a particular experience from the past or one particular event that has made him feel in a particular way and things just come to a crescendo.
…Mrs Andrea Meikle gave a statement to the NZ Police on 13 October 2008. In her statement Mrs Meikle describes her interaction with Alec and her observations of him that day. Mrs Meikle said:
Since we have been back in New Zealand Alec has been a lot more up-beat. He has had a couple of down days, but mostly he has been fine. I last saw Alec at about 6.30pm that evening. He was not depressed. He was his usual self. He told me that he had a good day at work. Louise Jane Reid also gave a statement to NZ Police on 13 October 2008. Ms Reid was Alec’s aunt and Alec was living with her at the time of his death. Ms Reid said:
At around 6.45pm today the 13 /10/08 I left with son Christopher for Scouts. Before I left I thought Alec was a little more quiet than usual but I just put that down to him having a hard day at work I asked if he was OK and he replied that he had just had a long day at work. Other than that I didn’t notice anything else about him that was unusual and he seemed perfectly fine.
Ms Reid subsequently returned home at around 9.20pm to find Alec hanging.
Assistance was immediately provided to Alec and emergency services contacted however it was not possible to revive Alec.
Constable Clare Rogers of the NZ Police prepared a report for the Auckland Coroner as to the circumstances of Alec’s death. That report included a note that in the period shortly before his death Alec had been looking at family photos on a computer…
In this case I do not know what the precipitating factor that led to Alec taking the action he did to end his life was. He did not leave a note or say anything to anyone that would allow us to understand what precipitated his action. It would be speculation to find that the events at Downer precipitated his action.
It could just as well have been something else. I cannot therefore be satisfied to the standard of proof required that the cause of his death occurred in New South Wales. As a consequence I do not have jurisdiction to make Findings in accordance with Section 81(1) or Recommendations in accordance with Section 82.
Having reached the conclusion that I have I do not consider it appropriate to consider what recommendations, if any, it would be appropriate to make if I were to have such jurisdiction to do so.
Deputy State Coroner
30 January 2015