Cary woman says husband's suicide is example of mental health treatment weaknesses statewide
Every year, 47,000 people die by suicide in the United States. After her husband became one of them, a Cary woman shared her family's experience as an example of what's still lacking in emergency care for people experiencing mental health crisis.
When Kevin O’Donnell was memorialized in April during a service at his church in Cary, the minister cited his intense love of family, but even that intense love couldn’t heal his mental disease.
"I think every member of our family was intensely worried about him," O'Donnell's son said during that funeral.
Wife Sharon O’Donnell was used to being Kevin’s rock.
“Kevin, as long as I have known him, has had anxiety," she said.
“Kevin and I were married for almost 35 years. He was a wonderful husband, father. We have three sons that are all grown.”
Kevin O'Donnell was under the care of a psychiatrist and a psychologist and was on medication. But in December he spiraled into a deep depression.
“There was this sadness that just overcame him," his wife said. "There was just this, this heaviness that just hit him. And he says, 'You know, Sharon, I, I don't know what it is. I can't explain it.'”
On Feb. 28, Sharon O'Donnell took her husband to the emergency room at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill. There were no in-patient psychiatric beds available, so he remained in the psychiatric wing of the ER for 24 hours waiting to be admitted.
“When we first went into the ER, the place we went into was very depressing," Sharon O'Donnell said. "It was gray walls and gray doors – thick, gray doors. It looked like a prison."
Sharon O'Donnell said there was no separation between patients.
"It just so happened that the person that was beside us was a patient who had violent tendencies. He was very aggressive," she said.
At one point, she considered transferring her husband to another hospital where a bed was available. She says she was told that he'd have to be handcuffed for the move.
"My husband just sobbed when he heard that," she said.
The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association tells WRAL News that handcuffing psychiatric patients during transfers is standard protocol in order to protect the officers.
“Here we are talking about destigmatizing mental health. And in that instance, it seems like we are criminalizing mental health," Sharon O'Donnell said.
The couple chose to stay at UNC Hospitals. Once he was admitted, Kevin O'Donnell received excellent care and was released four days later in good spirits. But he relapsed in March.
"I said, 'Why don't we go back to the ER?,'" Sharon O'Donnell recalled. "And Kevin said, 'No way. No way.'”
Kevin O’Donnell took his own life on April 20.
“It’s never going to make any sense. I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Kevin," his wife said.
Dr. Patrick Sullivan, director of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute, acknowledges the seriousness of the problem with mental health crisis care.
"The rates of mental illness and untreated and serious mental illness are, if they're not at an all-time high right now, they're pretty close," he said.
Sullivan can’t talk about any specific case, including Kevin O’Donnell’s, but says that health care funding cuts have disproportionately impacted psychiatric patients.
"We haven't been funding health care well enough," Sullivan said. "There's been a lot of effort to save money to save beds. Psychiatric services are kind of an easy target."
Although UNC Health has doubled the number of psychiatric clinicians in the past 3½ years, even that is not enough.
Sullivan said, "People should come to an ER, they should receive an assessment, and then they should go somewhere else as quickly as possible, as is feasible. That's not happening right now."
He believes the key is to help people before they end up in an ER. The UNC Suicide Prevention Institute hopes to create emergency psychiatric clinics based in primary care practices that could see patients in crisis.
"If we can handle these in some other way without having to go to an emergency room, that's even better," Sullivan said.
Sharon O'Donnell and her family are determined to keep talking about mental health services until they are improved statewide to help people like her husband.
“We just need to fix it. We just need to fix it," she said.
If you're having suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis, call or text 988. Veterans can press “1” after dialing 988 to connect directly to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline. For texts, veterans should continue to text the Veterans Crisis Lifeline short code: 838255.