By David Raleigh
The HSE has said it is to investigate concerns raised by a well-known Limerick businesswoman after she experienced "hell on earth" in a psychiatric hospital unit in Limerick.
Last November, Leona O'Callaghan, 35, spent two months at the 5B Psychiatric Ward in University Hospital Limerick, which she described as a "violent" and "uncaring" place.
"The HSE need to hear the voice of the service users," the mother of three said.
Ms O'Callaghan said she was forced to speak out publicly about her experience, because she got "no reply" to letters she sent to the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, and his Junior Health Minister, Kathleen Lynch.
In a searingly honest interview she described how after approaching a nurse in 5B, she was told she should kill herself if she really wanted to.
"The staff had put up a Christmas tree in the 5B ward and there were these decorations on it, and all I thought about was cutting my wrists with them," Ms O'Callaghan said.
"I went to one nurse and told her what I was thinking, and she told me to discharge myself and to (kill myself) elsewhere. She told me, 'we are only here to help the people who want help'."
In highlighting her brutal experience, Ms O'Callaghan called for "better training" for HSE staff dealing with depressed and suicidal patients and "better facilities for patients".
"Even though that nurse was stressed and overworked, that was not the way to deal with me at the time," she said.
While not blaming the nurse specifically, Ms O'Callaghan described how she discharged herself from the unit and slit her wrists.
"Mental illness makes you irrational and you need another voice to help you see sense. My family found me 10 hours later in a graveyard after I slit my wrists," she said.
When she was brought back to the hospital she said a nurse in the A&E department told her: "Suicide was the most selfish thing anyone could do."
"She also told me the injuries to my wrists would never heal and that I would have to tell my children what I had done."
"I hated myself so much and that comment only made me feel worse. She's working in the medical field, so I thought she must be right. I'm scared, God forbid, if I were to need help again that the right help is not there," Ms O'Callaghan added.
She said she decided to take her own life late last year when a "traumatic experience" from her childhood resurfaced bringing with it "flashbacks and panic attacks".
"I couldn't function. I wanted to die. I was consumed by thoughts of suicide," she said.
Ms O'Callaghan said it took 36 hours for a psychiatric nurse to evaluate her mental state after she first presented at A&E last year.
After eventually being referred to 5B, she said she entered a violent world where patients would "scream for hours night after night" leaving her "sleep deprived" and "scared".
She added: "One patient attacked a nurse with a set of keys. Another patient attempted to attack another nurse with a scissors."
She claimed a relaxation room at the psychiatric unit could not be accessed during her stay due to staff shortages.
She warned: "The staff in 5B are completely overworked and stressed. So many people are throwing themselves in the river in Limerick, attempting suicide, and going in and out of 5B."
"There's an epidemic in suicide in Limerick. Obviously something is going wrong."
She added: "The end stop in all of this - the hospital - doesn't have the right supports. It doesn't have to be this way."
"I don't have all the answers, but what I want to say is that all the stakeholders - the nurses, the doctors, the consultants, the physiologists, the volunteer workers, and the Government - all need to come together.
"There is no joined up thinking in the mental health services."
Ms O'Callaghan, who has taken a year out and sold off her businesses, Kids Playbus Ltd and the Dream Teddy Bear workshop, said: "There is another side to all of this. There is help out there. Personally, for me, it wasn't in 5B. I've got great help from GROW, Le Cheile and other services.
"I'm doing much better now. I'm doing well. Those (suicidal) thoughts are gone, and I'm fully aware now that the worst thing I could do for my children is to take myself out of the picture."
A HSE spokesperson said: "We are looking into the concerns and comments she has raised in her letters to the Health Minister.
"We can't comment on specific cases due to patient confidentiality," the spokeswoman said.