A Dundrum man has written to the Minister for Health appealing for the reopening of St Michael's Acute Psychiatric Unit in Clonmel and highlighting the hardship its loss has brought to mentally ill patients and their families in this county.
Derek Maxwell from Scarrough House, Dundrum sent the letter to Minister Simon Harris nearly four weeks ago and is awaiting a response to his appeal.
The 50-bed St Michael's Unit at South Tipperary General Hospital was closed by the Government in 2012 despite fierce local opposition. Ever since South Tipperary patients with psychiatric illnesses requiring inpatient care have been admitted to the psychiatric unit at St Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny City.
Derek has first hand experience of how the closure of St Michael's has impacted on South Tipperary people suffering from acute mental illness and their families. His late father James, a retired farmer, was admitted to the St Luke's psychiatric unit for three days about three and a half years ago suffering from depression.
Derek described to The Nationalist both in a letter and interview how the long distance of the Kilkenny unit from where he lived posed a huge difficulty for him in visiting his father when he was in hospital. He doesn't drive and there is no direct public transport to Kilkenny.
When his dad was discharged from St Luke's, Derek spent €120 on a taxi to go to Kilkenny to collect him and bring him back home. "As I am on social welfare, €120 is a lot of money to me," he said.
.He points out that if St Michael's Unit had been open, it would have been much easier to visit his father when he was in hospital as it was local and accessible for public transport. His dad passed away following a physical illness in October, 2016 at the age of 77.
Derek is also very concerned about the overcrowding problem at St Luke's acute psychiatric unit and the reports of patients forced to sleep in chairs or couches. A relative of his had to sleep on a chair when he was admitted to the unit about a year ago.
Derek was an inpatient at St Michael's Unit years ago during his own battle with depression and he found the treatment and care he received there very good.
Due to the overcrowding problems at St Luke's and its long distance from where he lives, he is "fearful and anxious" at the prospect of having to go to Kilkenny if he ever becomes acutely ill again.
"I am not being judgemental about the Kilkenny unit; I am sure they are doing their best but we need a local acute psychiatric inpatient unit.
“The Clonmel unit was for the people of South Tipperary. It was only 40 minutes drive from my home and there is public transport.
"I know there is the argument about keeping people with psychiatric illness in community care. That is fine but sometimes some people need the acute hospital services. They need to be in hospital for their own safety and well being."
Derek pays tribute to consultant psychiatrist Dr Alan Moore, the Save Our Acute Hospital Services Action Group and Tipperary's Fight for Mental Health Services Group on their campaigning to get St Michael's Unit re-opened.
"I do believe people have died for the want of a local acute inpatient psychiatric service in Tipperary," he concludes.
The Nationalist contacted the HSE for a comment on the issues Derek Maxwell raised about the difficulties the closure of St Michael's Unit is causing to people with acute psychiatric illness and their families.
The HSE’s response
A spokesperson for HSE/South East Community Healthcare responded that it did not comment on individual cases to protect client confidentiality and because of legal requirements under the Data Protection Action.
However, he said the HSE was happy to discuss any matter directly with a patient, client and or their family members.
He defended the care provided at St Luke's General Hospital's 44-bed psychiatric unit and other mental health services in the region.
"The HSE would like to reassure the public that all staff in the South East Community Healthcare mental health services are committed to the provision of a quality and safe mental health service to the population it serves in counties Carlow, Kilkenny and South Tipperary.
"There are a range of mental health services accessible in the Carlow, Kilkenny and South Tipperary in different settings including the individual's own home, inpatient facilities, outpatient clinics, day hospitals and day services," the spokesman added.