A Traveller family in Co Wexford who has lost seven members to suicide, including three children, say they have been "begging" for support from mental health services and the local authority, unsuccessfully.
The most recent suicide in the Berry family – who now live by the side of the road in Carcur , Wexford town – was in mid-July.
Alice (24) had been the full-time carer for her 22-year old sister Helen (Nelly) for two years, without respite or social-work support despite, says the family, repeated requests. Nelly has schizophrenia with occasional psychotic episodes and requires almost 24-hour care.
Their mother, Mary Berry (62), says the family had sought help for Alice, from their family GP and the HSE-run Summerhill Community Mental Health Centre in the fortnight before her death.
“They told us, ‘there’s nothing wrong with her’ and ’bring her for a jog’. And us living on a dual carriageway.”
In the hours before Alice hanged herself, on Saturday July 14th, her older sister Mary Berry-Connors contacted Wexford General Hospital and spoke to a psychiatric nurse.
“She told me, ‘unfortunately because it’s Saturday there’s nowhere we can send her. If she’s the same on Monday bring her to your family GP’. That was at 3.10 pm. A half hour later I found her hanging in the wardrobe.”
Since 2010 Alice, Nelly, their sister Bridget (37), brother Paddy (20) and his partner, and their parents Mary and Paddy had been living in a three-bedroom rented house with the support of Wexford County Council at Murrintown. Following Alice's death they "walked out after the ambulance and never went back", says Ms Berry.
Alice was the seventh suicide in the family. In 2010 a cousin, aged 21, took his own life. In 2004 another cousin, aged 35, also died by suicide. In 2001 a 22-year-old cousin died by suicide and in 1998 a nine-year-old cousin took his own life.
We'll never live in a house again
Miley (14), a brother of Mary Berry, hanged himself from a tree by the then family home in 1983, while in 1978 her 16-year-old sister Josie had hanged herself, at the top of the stairs. All happened in houses, says Ms Berry.
“We’ll never live in a house again.”
The family – Mary, her husband Paddy, Nelly and Bridget – now live in a small caravan on council-owned land near Wexford General Hospital. They had lived here before – about 20 years ago, before moving into a council house.
Also on the site are sons Jim and Michael with their families – including five children aged between one and 10. The site has no running water, toilets or electricity, a situation described by the children’s mother as “very hard”.
Alice had, for almost a year before her death, sought approval for a larger house for the family. A council social worker initially approved their application, says Ms Berry-Connors, but then said she would instead approve for Nelly and Alice to move into an apartment “in town”.
“But that’s not how Traveller families live, separated from each other,” says Ms Berry-Connors.
Alice had also been seeking, for more than two years, a HSE mental health social worker to support her care of Nelly, without success. She became “very depressed and withdrawn” around March, says her mother.
“We brought her to Summerhill and the GP, but she was very scared of the mental health services after seeing what Nelly went through for four years.”
She always said she was terrified of ending up in a mental hospital
St John of God nun, Sr Mary Curran, a family friend, described Alice as "always at Helen's side, very concerned about her".
“She always said she was terrified of ending up in a mental hospital – a beautiful, very sensitive girl.”
The family are appealing now for basic services, particularly a Portaloo, at Carcur.
“How can mammy begin to grieve and talk about her feelings living like this?” says Ms Berry-Connors. Asked if they would go back into a house, Ms Berry replies: “No. No we have peace here.”
Thomas McCann, director of the Traveller Counselling Service, called for a HSE and local authority review of the family’s case, describing it as “one of the worst in terms of the lack of care and compassion”.
“It really underlines the inability of services to meet Travellers where they are at. I’m very concerned now about other members of the family.”
A spokesman said Wexford County Council was “sympathetic to the Berry family and the plight in which they find themselves”. But “the council has a duty to protect our public lands from unauthorised use or trespass and we will take all steps necessary to fulfil this duty”.
A spokesman said the HSE would not comment on an individual or family's case
A review of the accommodation needs of Travellers was under way for the next Traveller Accommodation Programme which would “reflect the accommodation needs of all travelling families . . . living in Co Wexford”.
A spokesman said the HSE would not comment on an individual or family’s case.
“Incidents that occur in respect of any part of the mental health services are reported to the relevant authorities and a review is carried out.”
The family’s GP would not comment citing patient confidentiality.