News

And finally, the day one family’s memories finally died

By Riverine Herald

On February, 5 the Riverine Herald reported the unsolved death of a 29-year-old man in a lonely, rented room in Echuca. The deceased was a convicted criminal. But he was not the son and brother his family had raised and loved.

NO STORY has just one side. Most are just getting started with two sides.

Stories, in reality, like life – and death – are multifaceted, at times bewilderingly complex.

Many of those strands that make up life will often combine to lay bare the frailty that underpins most of us.

No one thing is surer, they will all have some degree of direct and indirect involvement.

In Kyabram, on January 15, a 29-year-old man was allegedly attacked – possibly by two men.

He was taken by ambulance to Kyabram hospital and released within a couple of hours, even though he had hit his head hard on the footpath when he fell backwards during the alleged assault.

Soon after being released he was in a bus and on his way back to Echuca, where he lived in a rented room.

Overnight, on January 19-20, for reasons still to be determined by the coroner, he died.

Alone.

His name was Sean O’Halloran.

And his mother, brother and four sisters had finally lost their son and brother.

To the grave.

But he was gone from them long before that.

First, as a troubled teen to drugs; then as a young adult to schizophrenia.

And the pain doesn’t end with the funeral, with the grieving.

Sean O’Halloran’s epitaph read ‘registered sex offender’.

He had served 12 months in jail, convicted of sending incriminating videos to a teenage girl online but in another one of those twists the teenage girl was actually an online sting being run by Victoria Police.

“Sean had said many times before he needed to do such things to get incarcerated, as the psychiatric wards would often reject him – and so many others – unless they were visually suicidal,” his family said.

His death, when reported online, attracted a flurry of comment, and from beyond the grave his troubled life continued to impact on his family.

For several years Sean had been in and out of psychiatric wards, doctor’s rooms, outpatients and pharmacies.

In too many ways he was a textbook example of the shortcomings of the infrastructure when it comes to best practice care of the mentally ill.

Not his mother, nor his family, are in any way defending what he was doing online.

They told him that, they told us that, they will tell you the same.

“It was 100 per cent wrong, as bad as you could get, and that’s what we told Sean,” his sister Hannah said.

But his family are not seeking to rewrite history, or to pretend Sean was something other than the flawed human he was.
What still drives them on, like the life they have just lost, is a tangled web of the direct and indirect.

Depending on where the medical examiner and coroner take Sean’s case, it will fall somewhere between death by misadventure and manslaughter.

A decision that is, at best, still weeks away, even though the family has petitioned the coroner for a report on progress to date.

At the same time they want to use his story as a rallying point to show people how the soaring number of patients with mental health problems have overwhelmed the system.

“From the age of 15 Sean started developing real mental health problems and he, and we, tried to get help,” his mother Christine explained.

“He knew, we knew, for whatever reason, he simply wasn’t coping with life and that was reflected in depression and, occasionally, in violence,” she said.

“Which we believe too many people were happy to use as an easy out, to say Sean just needed anger management.

“But normal people with a sound mind, no matter how angry, don’t do things like attack a prosecutor in a courtroom – surely that would make it pretty obvious that person might have some much deeper problems.

“People don’t go trawling the internet, sending explicit content to random females. But nothing seemed to sound enough alarms for Sean to get the help he needed.

“But what we do already know is that when he died, the only drugs in Sean’s system were the prescribed ones to treat his psychosis.”

With Sean the teenager following the classic slippery slope of weekend parties and experimenting with drugs to not turning up for work, to hanging out with undesirables and then, jobless, rudderless, drifting to Melbourne.

His family, like many, many families, did all they could to pull him out of this spiralling decline but drug addicts are singing from a different hymn sheet to the rest of us.

Their focus is not on treating their mental health, on trying to make a future, even on seeking help. It is all about the next fix.

Not even love could help turn him around.

Not the love of his family, not the love of his girlfriend. Who could not even love herself and who would soon die from an overdose, a loss that Sean’s addled mind could not properly process, just as he could not process normality.

“And this is where our mental health system failed Sean and fails so many others in his position. Our mental health system is so reactive rather than proactive. A lot of addicts know they need help, they do want help,’’ Christine said. 

“But they don’t know how to go about it, or don’t have the mental stability to stick to a mental health plan that is set up for people of sound mind – when they are past that.”

Because by now he was hearing voices, telling him to do things, never letting him be. Voices that could only be controlled by the right cocktail of antipsychotics.

And getting that right is not easy, it is the art of the psychiatrist to find the right chemical balance and then keeping it right while the mind of the patient continues to mutate and move him back into the danger zone.

“It is the patient’s responsibility to go to the doctor, to get the right script, get it filled and then make sure to take the drugs at the right time, every time,” Christine said.

“How does someone who can barely function become responsible for all that? It just doesn’t work.

“The drugs took over his life but the schizophrenia and the damaged way the system tries to help took his life from him.”

While serving his 12 months, Sean came up for parole at six months but did not have stable accommodation, so he had to wait another three months for his next parole hearing and hit the same hurdle.

His mother said that must have meant everyone in the prison service must have been aware of the extent of his mental problems but at 12 months there were no more tests, no more checks.

“On his release he was given a Myki card, three nights at a Bendigo motel and then written off by the system,” Hannah said.

“They let him out in December, just before Christmas. He didn’t last a month.”

Christine said “local police had watched him deteriorate over a few years, they knew him, knew who he was”.

She said people like Sean always seemed to be punished with the full force of the law, when what they actually needed was help.

“I make no excuses for the things he did that were wrong but so is the system, we pick on the wrong thing, instead of helping the mentally ill we incarcerate them,” Christine said.

“Too often the approach of the police was confrontation, and for anyone who is mentally ill that just cranks up their stress levels.
“And around here, almost anywhere, there is nothing available for people over the age of 25 – except prison.

There at least they get some help; in fact it is almost like a holiday for some. They are not intimidated by having to make the most basic decisions, they get fed three times a day, have showers and a bed. Without the stress which is a daily weight on their lives on the outside.’’

Sean had been arrested several times during his short life; had appealed for help many more times, but it most usually fell on deaf ears, on a system not capable and/or equipped to deal with people with these issues.

“My son was not a terrible person,” Christine said.

“He may have done some terrible things, but that wasn’t him. 

“So much of it was the outcome of poor mental health, of his schizophrenia, of a justice system not taught how to deal with mentally ill people, it is a system only taught how to set them up legally, and then incarcerate them again, giving people who already have very little hope absolutely no chance,” she said.

“Families should not have to go through that, the system needs to be reassessed, especially with the huge drug epidemic that is ruining our people and our towns.”

Hannah said the social media that followed Sean’s death “has had an incredible impact on our families, it has wounded them, one of my daughters is now also suffering anguish because of it”. 

“We have to face it, but none of the people with their accusations knew Sean, didn’t know anything factual about his situation,” she said.

“Sean’s life, our lives, have been a 10-year battle and this is how he is remembered.

“No, no family, no person, should have to go through this, no person’s life should be taken from them.”