A 46-YEAR-OLD woman tragically set herself on fire outside Carlow Garda Station on Sunday morning just hours after she absconded from a mental health facility in Carlow town.
Mother-of-three Sharon Joyce from Hacketstown is currently fighting for her life in the Intensive Care Unit of St James’s Hospital, Dublin, having sustained severe burns to 80% of her body.
“She’s still very critical, it’s touch and go … hour by hour, really,” said Sharon’s heartbroken sister Linda.
The Joyce family has been left devastated by Sharon’s horrific incident of self-harm and say their mentally ill sister has been “utterly failed by the system, a failure that almost cost Sharon her life”.
“We are speaking out because we want to tell Sharon’s story – no-one should have to go through what she went through. There was absolutely no support out there for Sharon. This is going on for five years, in and out of St Luke’s Hospital, in and out of Greenbanks Crisis House – everywhere we turned, a dead end,” said Linda.
“We are struggling; we’re so disappointed at the lack of support available for Sharon and for us as a family,” said a tearful Linda.
Sharon was under the care of the HSE psychiatric services and for the past few weeks was a resident at the HSE’s Greenbanks Crisis House on Athy Road, Carlow. Early on Sunday morning, Sharon sent a number of alarming text messages to family members and left Greenbanks unknown to staff.
“My sister Ann-Marie, who is Sharon’s next of kin, tried to ring Greenbanks several times on Sunday morning, but they didn’t answer,” explained Linda.
It is understood that Sharon was reported missing to Carlow gardaí by Greenbanks staff. However, Greenbanks did not inform the Joyce family that their vulnerable sister was missing.
Supt Aidan Brennan confirmed to The Nationalist yesterday (Monday) that at approximately 10.45am on Sunday morning, a member of Carlow Garda Station looked out the window of the station and observed a woman douse herself in petrol and set herself alight. The incident occurred on a small green area across the road from the station and close to the offices of Carlow Co Council.
The garda immediately ran out with a fire extinguisher while an ambulance, which was in the vicinity, was quickly at the scene. Paramedics were also assisted by Carlow Fire Service.
“We have offered support and counselling service to the staff involved,” said Supt Brennan. “It is a traumatic incident for them and all involved.”
The Joyce family were then informed that their worst fears for Sharon had been realised.
“I do understand that there are policies and procedures and that you can’t hold anyone against their will, but we were told Greenbanks is 24/7 care,” said a devastated Linda.
Over the years, despite Sharon engaging in numerous incidents of self-harm and repeatedly informing health professionals of her suicidal thoughts, her desperate cries for help went largely unanswered.
“We have letters saying that she is not mentally ill, that she is attention seeking,” argued Linda, adding that one doctor shockingly described Sharon as having “adult tantrums”.
A fragile Sharon was even held in custody and appeared before Carlow District Court late last year. Having read a letter in court from the psychiatric department of St Luke’s Hospital, Judge Colin Daly remarked: “There is a certain degree of hand washing going on.” Sharon’s solicitor Brendan O’Flaherty would later say that it appeared that his client had “fallen through the cracks in the system”.
“She is accompanied by her two sisters and they are doing their best to give assistance,” said Mr O’Flaherty. “Ms Joyce badly needs help that has not been available.”
Ten months later, Sharon was still desperately in need of help.
“I’m absolutely gutted and devastated for Sharon,” said Linda. “Who would go through what she has gone through without being mentally ill? No sane person would do what that girl has done.”
The Joyce family are at Sharon’s bedside as she fights for life, but know that even if their mother and sister pulls through, she faces a significant, if not impossible, road to full recovery.
In a statement to The Nationalist, the HSE indicated that patient confidentiality meant that details of the case could not be discussed. However, the HSE/South East Community Healthcare confirmed that it is “liaising with gardaí and the family of a user of its mental health services, as regards an incident that occurred in Carlow on Sunday morning, 30 September”.
“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 as per HSE policies and procedures,” the statement read.
The HSE also confirmed that Greenbanks Crisis House, Carlow is in the mental health services and is used for crisis intervention and for acute respite purposes.
“Where it is possible to offer and deliver crisis intervention in the community for a desired period, it is a preferred treatment option. A crisis house is not an intensive treatment option but rather a place of refuge, of understanding and of support for individuals in crisis,” the HSE stated. “The facility is not restrictive and offers each user an opportunity to deal with issues surrounding their lives by accessing appropriate interventions such as counselling, family therapy, psychology, social work or other available holistic options as required.
“Service users are encouraged to move on following the resolution of their crisis, with an option for appropriate support and follow-up contact should that be required.
“Evaluation of crisis houses has found that they are acceptable to service users and offer an alternative to in-patient care for a proportion of those who would otherwise be admitted to hospital,” the statement concluded.