Sean O Keeffe, RIP, “Anyone’s Brother

Warning : Some readers may find this story of Sean O Keeffe very distressing

We would like to add our family’s story to the others in an attempt to honour our brother Sean O Keeffe.

Last year, our youngest, much loved 28 year old brother died of an overdose after struggling for years with serious mental health challenges and then addiction.
As his family we tried to support him and he tried to help himself but his needs were too complex and the services ill equipped to support him.

Addiction is the only conversation

He had numerous hospital A&E visits and admissions for medical complications of his addiction. His mental health was deteriorating rapidly in the last 10 months of his life. When we were with him during these visits to hospital, we often were desperate for Séan to receive mental health support.

But we were repeatedly told that

‘Addiction is the only conversation’,

 In other words, we cannot help him until he is no longer using heroin.

He left feeling even more ashamed and worthless

He often left hospital feeling even more ashamed and worthless than when he went in.

Séan died at home. In the 24 hours before he died, he had been discharged from A&E twice. On one level he wanted to die, but he also desperately wanted to live, and he sought help

A new term “Dual Diagnosis”

We had started to hear the term ‘dual diagnosis’ a few months before he died. We have since clarified what that really means. The HSE talking about trying to formulate a protocol called dual diagnosis and then to implement it across its services at some point. It will hopefully be a protocol for dealing with mental health in active addicts as they present in crisis.
The reality is that it is moving very slowly and in practice the mental health teams are not yet anywhere near able to support these service users.

Dignity and hope

Séan may still have died even if the philosophy of dual diagnosis was widespread across the HSE, but we would have loved for him to have had the chance of living and for him to have felt a bit of dignity and a feeling of hope. We hope that as addicts and their often antisocial behaviour is more understood in the context of their debilitating mental health, society will become more compassionate towards these incredibly vulnerable people.

Sean O Keeffe needed compassion and support

Séan would have appeared weak and selfish to many that would have seen him stumble around. But we knew him better, he was struggling with such profound anxiety and depression. He, and many like him, would be honoured by society for their strength if they were properly understood. If dual diagnosis could become a reality sooner rather than later surely it would provide a sense of hope and dignity that addicts deserve. Even if death still came at a young age to many of them, I would call it a successful program if it helped them feel compassion and support.

Remembering Séan

We held a small memorial on the first anniversary of Séan’s death in October. We want to put together an art piece in memory of Séan that people will have the opportunity to add to. It will be a ceramic collage, as members of the public add a piece in memory of Séan. We hope it will evoke compassion and awareness for people suffering as a result of dual diagnosis.

Editor’s Note

A moving and dignified event was held. More details to follow. You can see one of the speeches here.

You can see Kitty Holland’s report in the Irish Times here.

Sean O Keeffe’s family include Health Care Workers, Nurses, a Law graduate, a Counselling Psychologist, Community Mental Health Support workers, and a University Lecturer They have a wealth of knowledge, insight, skills and resources, and despite all their efforts they could not get help for their brother.   

In 2016, the then Health Minister, now Taoiseach Mr Leo Varadkar acknowledged the shortcomings in the services for people like Sean O Keeffe. This acknowledgement came after the tragic death of Caoilte O’Broin. 3 years later not a lot has changed.