Daily Ireland SATURDAY INTERVIEW: My boy Danny
GERARD and Carol McCartan spent three years struggling with the medical authorities to get help for their tormented son, Danny. Three weeks ago, his body was cut down from the electric cable he had used to hang himself with.
Within the past three months, 18 young people have taken their own lives in north and west Belfast – six alone within the past five weeks in the north of the city.
Kids are dying at the rate of more than one a week. The problem respects no borders. Ireland is second in the global league table of people under 25 taking their own lives, making it the most common cause of death among 15-24 olds. We have highest suicide rate in Europe. Yet this country’s services for parents and troubled young people appear to be stuck in the dark ages. Frustration led one group of parents recently to disrupt a recent meeting of the North and West Belfast Health Trust.
For those of us lucky enough not to have experienced suicide in our own family, these may just be statistics, albeit cruel and disturbing. Behind them, however, are stories of unbearable pain.Gerard, Carol, Caroline and Danny McCartan’s story
Gerard, a butcher, met Carol, a shop assistant, at a dance when they were both 16. They married at 18, setting up home in the Bone area of Ardoyne.
While struggling, like many others, to make ends meet, they kept their heads above water. A brother-in-law was murdered by the UDA, but they were otherwise relatively unscathed by the Troubles.
A daughter arrived, Caroline, and then Danny. Caroline excelled at school. Danny was different. With a high IQ, he never liked classes and, although there were never complaints he was disruptive, he never settled.
Promises of consultations with educational psychologists came to nothing. Danny had the additional misfortune of being relatively short and stout and was nicknamed locally “Fat Boy”. He hated it.
Three years ago, Danny began to cut himself – shallow cuts, sliced along his lower arms using a disposable razor. Carol and Gerard couldn’t believe it.
“We had never heard of it before.” says Gerard. “We took him to the doctor but he said it was just a fad amongst young people, nothing to worry about. He tried to reassure himself that the doctor knew what he was saying. But the cutting continued.
“From the age of 13, he wouldn’t leave the house,” says Carol. “He hated the area. He said if he went out, he would end up on street corners drinking and taking drugs.”
Desperate to try and break the downward spiral, his parents sent him to Carol’s brother in Chicago for three months in the summer of 2002. He thrived and came home “a different boy” – taller, thinner, more confident, with a spring in his step.
He quickly, however, became depressed again at home, longing to go back to Chicago to work with his uncle, to be back somewhere he had a clean sheet, away from Ardoyne and the “Fat Boy” taunts.
Phil McTaggart, the man behind PIPS (Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and Self Harm), and whose own son took his own life, can remember visiting Danny around this time.
“It was a lovely evening, but Danny had the curtains drawn tight and was lying in bed. All he wanted was to go back to America. There was nothing in Belfast for him. He wanted a job, a purpose in life.”
Eight months later, Danny returned to Chicago and, again, enjoyed himself immensely. After three months, however, his visa expired and he had to come home.
Gerard and Carol planned a holiday in Spain for their son’s return. It was a huge success, the first time the family had been abroad on holiday together. However, it was time to come home.
Gerard and Carol prayed Danny had “grown out of it”. The cutting had stopped. Danny didn’t have to go back to the school he hated. They believed they had their son back again.
He was, however, unemployed and was put onto a compulsory youth training scheme, installing dry lining. He hated it and the depression returned. Danny went to another doctor who prescribed strong tranquillisers and anti-depressants. They made him worse. “It made him withdrawn and then he began cutting his face,” says his father.
Although he was sent for counselling, it didn’t help much. “I was hiding every razor blade and knife in the house. We were living on the edge. We were consumed by constant worry”, says Gerard.
“Every other morning there was a cut on his face or arm. It took over our lives. We didn’t know where to turn.” Danny started taking illegal drugs. They suspect ecstasy and cannabis. Then on August 12, 2004, he took an overdose.
Caroline, his sister, discovered him lying in bed with rosary beads around his neck, a note nearby and tablets scattered around the room. He was rushed to hospital.
There was no bed for Danny in the specialist juvenile psychiatric unit and he was placed on an adult ward at a south Belfast hospital. The suicidal thoughts returned. During a short visit home, between hospitals, he had secreted a knife in his clothing and later sliced both his thighs.
Earlier, while at school, Danny had fallen between the jurisdiction of the Belfast and Antrim education authorities. Now he fell between the responsibility of two different hospital trusts. As his father says, “another ‘breakdown in communication’”.
After initial concerns, however, he settled relatively well into one hospital but was then - at two hours’ notice and without consultation - transferred to the adult psychiatric ward of another hospital where most of the other patients were elderly dementia sufferers.
“I’m 39 years of age and it scared me”, says Gerard. “It was a horrible place – a culture shock”. Danny couldn’t stick it, packed his bags and returned home the following morning.
From then on, the family were at the receiving end of a variety of a community psychiatric nurses, doctors and social workers.
By now, Danny, as well as his parents, knew he needed help, badly. He was taking as many as 18 tablets a day. The doctors experimented with different medications. The weight he had lost in America was piling back on again.
Having been promised a psychiatrist’s appointment within two weeks, he was given one six months away. All the family got on well with the psychiatrist whom they liked and trusted. Getting to see her, however, was another matter.
Danny turned 18 last Christmas and lost his social worker. That role was taken up by a community psychiatric nurse (CPN). The taunting over his weight began again.
He fell in with a different crowd and in March he began sniffing glue, “to escape” and to stop eating. He began saying he had nothing to live for. Gerard and Carol asked for another appointment with the psychiatrist but were told she would not see Danny while he was sniffing glue.
He finally got a psychiatric appointment for May 12. It was two months away. Danny phoned up the emergency doctor service, trying to get back into hospital.
Gerard phoned the psychiatrist’s receptionist, explaining how urgent it was, and the appointment was brought forward to April 20, two weeks early. At least that was something.Two days later, a letter arrived saying that appointment had been postponed until October. They decided not to tell Danny, fearing it would push him over the edge.
On Monday April 11, the community psychiatric nurse arrived at the house. Danny begged to be sent to hospital. The nurse said that there was no way that could happen while he was sniffing glue. He would have to give it up first.
“He was very blunt about it,” says Gerard, adding quickly that he doesn’t blame the nurse for what happened next. Danny left the house at 2.30pm, angry and feeling that his anguish wasn’t being taken seriously.
It was the last time his parents saw him alive. At 9.40pm that night, their door rapped with the bad news. Gerard ran to a nearby derelict house where Danny had hanged himself on some electric cable. He was dead less than an hour.
They had no problem arranging a meeting with the psychiatrist after Danny died. She explained to them she had no idea that his need was so urgent and that, if she had known, she would have seen him immediately. Another communication breakdown. The medical professionals involved in his case are now conducting an investigation into what went wrong. Gerard and Carol are left to pick up the pieces.
Their faces express a mixture of incomprehension, grief and despair. Three weeks after Danny’s death, they are unable to come to terms with it. They know they did everything they could, but will be left wondering – forever – if there had been anything more they could have done.