Chris Donoghue: In September this year an article appeared in The Irish times from an unknown contributor known as “Grace Ringwood”. Grace’s piece was a very moving description of her personal struggle with depression and the issue of suicide. It later transpired that Grace’s real name was “Kate” and between writing the piece in August and the article being printed in early September, Kate took her own life.
On Saturday of this week, The Irish Times published more in-depth details of the story written by Peter Murtagh, in which Kate’s parents contributed to that story. Now, many people listening to this will know how far and wide that this story has travelled in the last 3 or 4 days. The Broadsheet.ie website has been covering it in depth. I think, the last time I checked, there were about 10,000 times on Facebook that this story had been shared and 10,000s of times on Twitter as well.
Last night I spoke with Sally Anne who is Kate’s mother; Sally-Anne Fitzgerald. I told her that I had read the story in The Irish Times. I had found it extremely moving. I told her all of the things online and indeed had read Kate’s own piece. But I wanted to start the interview by her telling me about Kate.
Sally-Anne Fitzgerald: Kate..... I don’t even know where to start, she was such a wonderful girl. Kate was very bright; she was very talented, she was a great writer and I did not know it, but she was a great singer. I have a singing school and I gave her a few lessons last summer. It was the first time I ever heard her sing because my children always wanted to stay away from that side, they just thought that was Mom’s area and I didn’t know that both of them could sing so well. So she sang beautifully at a wedding just about 2 months before she died.
Kate had tremendous ambition, she had great determination. She was a great friend to many and a great adviser, a great helper [and] a mentor to people that were in DCU where she was an alumni. She was a wonderful daughter and great sister to her brother, William.
She had fought depression, we think, for a few years but it was not the type that you would categorise as having to be hospitalised or something like that. We tried different methods and brought her to different doctors who had tried to help her in different ways. I’ve got a history of depression in my family... so we tried that, but we didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation. She kept it to herself.
C D: And Sally-Anne, you and your husband spoke about Kate in the article in The Irish Times on Saturday and you described somebody who was extremely ambitious and I’m a couple of years older than Kate and just reading it, what jumped out of the page for me was the feeling of not being able to wait to be grown up. To be big in the world.
SAF: That’s right. Kate was a little different and there’s a paradox there. She was, on one hand, we thought that she wanted to get out there and be a tiger and just go for it. Then on the other, she just never really was comfortable with being an adult I don’t think. She wanted to be independent and at the same time she wanted to stay a little girl. That’s all I can describe it as. It was a very unusual thing. We thought she was very tough. She had been bullied in secondary school and we thought that she could handle almost anything that came her way and unfortunately, we were wrong.
CD: And Sally-Anne, you told us that you and your family were aware of Kate’s depression. How did that manifest itself and how did you go about dealing with it?
SAF: Right, well she would tell us that when she left secondary school it would be in college that she first had the first symptoms. And because she was well aware of what had happened to me with my history of depression; my brother had committed suicide in 2002; I have a half-sister who committed suicide in 1985 and she knew that there was a great family history of this. So we were all very up on it. My sisters would give advice, I would give advice.
I would want her to do things like, I don’t know if your listeners are aware of cognitive behavioural therapy, but that’s the kind of thing that I wanted her to do. To try and reframe the negative thinking that comes with depression, because it’s a chemical imbalance, it’s a physical illness and if you get on the right anti-depressants, have the right doctor’s care, if he diagnoses it correctly and then you also have this reframing of your thinking, You can really go on to try and successfully rid yourself of this terrible disease.
CD: And Sally-Anne, in the piece that Kate sent to The Irish Times, I have to put my hands up here because in reading it I confronted myself because I was wondering when somebody in work comes back from a heart-attack or something you ask them if you’re ok.
If somebody suffers bereavement in your friends or in work again, you know a manner of going about dealing with that, but when it comes to mental illness and it comes to depression, I don’t know what to do and many people if they’re honest don’t know what to do.
SAF: That’s exactly right. And that’s why I have a problem with the term “mental illness” actually Chrism because I think that what happens is that people out there do not understand that this is something that is a physical ailment as well. It’s a psychological ailment of course but there is a physical chemical imbalance going on so therefore it’s not put in the same category as say, cancer or heart disease, or something like that. So they do not treat it as something that is a physical disease and therefore the person feels shamed. Now, if they feel shamed, this is only going to compound their misery, compound their desperation, and that’s why it’s such a vicious circle, because if people did look at it as a physical problem, then perhaps they would understand and treat people more kindly and more humanely.
CD: And for people, do you think it is the quandary of, ye know, press on, pretend that the person hasn’t been missing for a month and just press on like it’s a normal day or do you actually stop, do you seek them out and do you say “do you need anything?”
SAF: Yes, I think that that is something that is missing in many workplaces and I think that with friends as well, I think that a lot of people get fed up, they don’t know how to deal with it and they wash their hands of the person and what the person really needs is constant love and support and that’s what we tried to do for Kate. I think that sometimes if a person seems very tough and they can handle it and you should just get on with it, that’s the sort of attitude that prevails then that’s just going to make the problem worse because they will think that they have no support structure.
CD: And Sally-Anne, Kate’s words which she left and which she sent to The Irish Times and she sent to Peter Murtagh. Those words, to me, are somebody who is pouring their heart out onto a page and anyone who read this, and so many people have read this, and the reason they have passed it around is because she is pouring her heart out onto a page about all of this.
SAF: That’s right. That’s right, she actually was. And those were what serve to be her final words.
They were very important and they were heartbreaking to read. If people out there, your listeners, think it was hard for them, just imagine what it was like for our family. We were completely blindsided by this tragedy, and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get over it.
CD: And I know everyone is analysing what those words meant. To me, I see positivity and I see someone who is working their way through this. Was that the impression you had of Kate?
SAF: Yes, it was Chris. I spoke to her on the day of the night that she died. We’re not sure exactly of the time. Her brother also spoke to her. She spoke to Peter Murtagh as you know. And to everyone, and including the person for whom she was working, no-one had picked up any signs that she had a plan, and that is the God honest truth. If we had picked it up we certainly would have taken action. We had no idea.
CD: And just finally Sally-Anne, yourself and your husband and Kate’s brother who you’ve spoken about a couple of times in this interview. You are aware of how far and wide Kate’s words have been passed and how far and wide this story has reached. And it’s in a week where it’s very relevant and people are thinking and talking about suicide. What do you hope comes of all of this? What do you hope the legacy of this letter is?
SAF: Let’s try to erase the stigma that surrounds suicide and depression in general. Let’s treat it as what it is and that is a physical ailment. And try to be supportive of people. Be kind to each other and be kind to the people that you love. Be there for them, and if you’re in a workplace, support them through it so that they will have someone to go to if they need help and a tragedy like this can be avoided.
If people were talking about the subject more which is what we would like to do - bring it to the forefront, then I think that this would not be so pervasive. It happens in my own country and it happens here and on the very day that Kate died, there was also another boy in our town who also committed suicide and it has completely galvanised this community and really got people talking about the issue which is what we would like to be Kate’s legacy. That’s something that is very important to us because we don’t want her to have died in vain.
So if we can bring a positive out of this very negative situation, then that’s something.
CD: That was Sally-Anne Fitzgerald speaking to me from her home last night. Sally-Anne and her husband Tom, and the West Cork School of Voice have organised a concert in Kate Fitzgerald’s honour at The Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff on December 9th and 10th and all proceeds of that concert will go to Plan Ireland (www.plan.ie), which was Kate’s favourite charity. And if some of the issues in that affect you and if the issues of suicide affect you, the number of the Samaritans is 1850 60 90 90.