MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Who is there for today’s Declan Folan and those suffering mental health issues?

Declan Folan's mental illness had terrible consequences for him and his family.

When I knew Dec Folan, he was on a path to serious career success, writes Michael Clifford

One evening last year I got a call from a friend of mine.

“Did you see that thing on the news about a man arrested over that fella who was missing in Galway,” he asked.

“What about it?”

“I’ve an awful feeling it’s Dec Folan.”

The name rang a bell. Then my friend — we’ll call him John — reminded me.

Declan Folan was a friend of John’s who had moved into a rented house to replace me when I moved out to buy a home. That was 17 years ago. I remembered him as a nice guy, a lad who was quick to smile and slow to take offence.

John’s hunch proved horribly correct. The following day, the newspapers carried the photos of Declan Folan being brought to court to be charged with the murder of his brother, Adrian. I recognised the face with a sinking feeling.

The thought of the horror visited on his family was too much to dwell on. And the same question kept coming up. How did the man go from the there of when I knew him, to the here of unspeakable tragedy?

Eight days ago, the Central Criminal Court found 41-year-old Declan Folan not guilty by reason of insanity of the murder of his brother, Adrian, who had died by strangulation.

The court had heard that Declan had become “fixated with paedophilia” and held the baseless delusion that his brother was a person “afflicted with this difficulty and he may have sexually abused a sibling”.

The prosecuting lawyer, Anthony Sammon, said that the accused was in an “utterly delusional state of mind” and his delusions were “not to be given any weight whatsoever”.

Two forensic psychiatrists told the court that the defendant should not be held responsible for his actions. The jury took just 21 minutes to find Declan Folan not guilty by reason of insanity.

According to the court report, judge Margaret Heneghan extended her sympathies to the Folan family: “I have noticed the distress they have all been under and all I can do is extend my sympathies.”

Declan Folan was remanded to the Central Mental Hospital.

Earlier, the court had heard that the defendant was unemployed and on a back-to-work scheme. For those who took a cursory glance at the case, that detail might have fitted into the prejudiced stereotype of somebody with mental health difficulties — a middle-aged man who probably never worked in his life.

When I knew Dec Folan, he was on a path to serious career success. He was on a graduate programme in AIB — a position that was much coveted. John was a colleague, but, as he pointed out to me: “Dec would have been among the elite of those of us taken in at the time.”

Away from work, he appeared to be indistinguishable from his friends who were all enjoying the social life — and excesses — that are a rite of passage in this country for twentysomethings. I was older and slightly removed from that scene, but on occasion Declan would call to the house looking for one of the lads and we’d end up discussing the state of the GAA in his native county, Galway, from which my mother also hails.

If anything, he used to strike me as pretty chilled out, the kind of lad for whom it would take a lot to get riled up.

At work, things got better for him. He was promoted to a sales position that came with a company car. Then, some signs began to appear that maybe all was not well.

John went on a holiday to Thailand with another guy who was in living in that house. Ger noticed minor quirks in Dec’s personality but nothing that suggested any major difficulties. That came later, when there was an incident in which he crashed a car.

Out of that, he ended up in St Brendan’s psychiatric hospital in Grangegorman on the north side of Dublin. I do have a clear recollection of John telling me of the visit at the time, and how the conditions he observed had left him sick to his stomach.

Earlier this week, he recalled it: “Dec had been in there for about a fortnight at the time. It was a horror — reminded me of what a boarding school is like, with all these beds in one square room, about 30 of them, and they were all locked into the room. I was brought into an adjoining meeting room and he was brought in and the door locked behind him. I could see into the main room, the chaos in there.

“He was highly sedated and I could see he had high levels of paranoia. He told me that some of them got out and went drinking a few times, serious drinking.”

That was not Ireland in Victorian times, but just 13 or 14 years ago, when the country was, according to Mary Harney at the time, “awash with money”. St Brendan’s has since been closed down.

Declan Folan was released from the hospital some time after and resumed work with the bank. (According to John, AIB was good to him during that difficult period). Eventually, though, after some more problems resulting from his condition, he left the bank.

John lost contact with him, and then he showed up on the news, on the final rung of his descent into awful tragedy.

The illness which sought out and afflicted Declan Folan was of the most harrowing kind. Just like physical conditions such as cancer, it struck in an apparently random fashion. It resulted initially in derailing a young man from a path that looked en route to a fulfilling life. And ultimately, it visited unspeakable grief on his family.

It may be the case that, in a society which takes mental health seriously, stricken individuals like Declan Folan would still find themselves prompted to act in a violent manner on foot of delusions.

But we don’t know that because this country does not take mental health seriously. The most recent manifestation of the disregard for this branch of health was the diversion of €12m from its budget into other, more politically sensitive areas.

That was not the first time that money designated for mental health services was diverted.

Last year, in a review of the 2006 blueprint Vision For Change, the Mental Health Reform group concluded that in the early years of implementation, things were already getting bogged down.

“Designated investment funds were lost to other parts of the health service and eventually stopped for a period of time,” the report stated. Vision For Change has never been properly, or in some aspects even partially, implemented.

Ultimately the political will — which is a function of public priorities — doesn’t appear to be strong enough to effect proper change.

In the meantime, the afflicted and their loved ones endure through quiet desperation, as if their suffering is not suffering at all because it occurs behind closed doors, far from the centres of power.

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