Anna is in jail, but her mother wants to know why it took this long for the state to help her.
Anna is in jail, but her mother wants to know why it took this long for the state to help her.

Jail is the right place for my child

MY DAUGHTER Anna is in jail. She belongs there. She murdered an innocent person.

We will never come to terms with the horrific fact she took a man's life. But my family and I have watched with amazement as something has happened which we'd lost hope for.

Inside the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria's maximum security prison for women, Anna has turned her life around.

In jail she is finally getting the help we've begged for, for so many years. It's just a tragedy it took a man's death to get her that help. She should have been helped many, many years before it got to this point.

At eight years old, our beautiful, quirky child started hearing ghosts whisper terrifying messages to her.

At 14 she first tried to remove herself from this world.

At 23, she found the demands of adulthood so overwhelming that she began to self-medicate with alcohol, synthetic 'weed' and the abuse of her prescribed antipsychotic. By the time she turned 25, the ghosts in her head had morphed into evil demons who howled so loudly they wouldn't give her a chance to rest.

Anna as a baby, pictured with her older sister Katie.
Anna as a baby, pictured with her older sister Katie.

We tried to get her help many times. We begged so many people - even hoping to institutionalise her when we realised she was beyond responding voluntarily.

But nothing eventuated.

Anna's life now is better than it has been in many years.

She's in a place more secure and surrounded by greater compassion than we ever envisioned.

With regular sleep and good nutrition, with antipsychotics monitored and dispensed by a medical practitioner, she no longer hears horrible voices or craves illicit drugs. She is proud of how tidy and clean she keeps her room, where she has created a little book nook in one corner.

More importantly, when she leaves her room she has a job to go to, and supervised activities to participate in. Her favourites are the drama group and music classes. Anna always struggled painfully with relationships, but here she is learning to get on with other young women.

Although she's made some mistakes, and paid the consequences, she is forging better friendships then she's ever had before. At the same time she is respected by the staff, who value her intelligent humour, her willingness to work and her help with the new arrivals.

While my husband John, her sister Katie and myself are happy Anna's life is now moving in a positive direction, we'll never accept how she got there.

Anna heard voices in her head from an early age.
Anna heard voices in her head from an early age.

This should not have happened. It shouldn't have happened with the other people suffering from mental illness who have killed since Anna went to prison. Please, let's not let it happen again.

How did our daughter, who as a child wouldn't read a novel because she couldn't stand hearing about anything bad happening to anyone, get to the point where she could commit murder?

As a writer I have tried to figure that out through many thousands of words, too many to go into here. But I can tell you about a couple of decisions which still cause my heart to ache, because I believe if the choices made by those in charge had been different, a good man might still be alive.

John and I desperately wanted to get Anna into the 18-month residential rehabilitation program for people with addictions, run by Odyssey House. Their goals of teaching life skills sounded ideal, so on numerous occasions we trooped over to their headquarters in Richmond for information sessions.

We dragged Anna in for interviews. I tried to teach her how to get there herself on public transport. But after I had called Odyssey House a dozen or so times to find out if she could at least be put on the waiting list, I was finally told that Anna's mental health issues were too complex and uncontrolled for them to handle.

This was deeply disappointing, but a decision made by a different organisation the next year was devastating.

Anna’s family tried for years as they saw her slide into deeper mental health and addiction issues, but they could never get her ongoing treatment.
Anna’s family tried for years as they saw her slide into deeper mental health and addiction issues, but they could never get her ongoing treatment.

By that time Anna had discovered ice. Although she only dabbled in it, that was enough to push her over into true psychosis.

In her ravaged mind, John and I were no longer her respected parents but had been replaced by evil look-alikes who took pleasure in abusing her. When she threatened us, and insisted that we harbour random guys she happened to meet, we finally told her she couldn't live with us anymore.

In the months that followed, she was more than once picked up by the police and admitted to locked psych wards under the Mental Health Act. Unfortunately, they could only keep her for a few days at a time.

There were also periods of calm. She came to love and trust her dad and me again, and though we helped her out financially, we could not resume the exhausting struggle of letting her live with us. Sometimes she stayed with Katie, or with an older man who befriended her through a carers' organisation.

I was especially grateful to a tireless worker from the Personal Helpers and Mentors program (PHaMs), a government-funded initiative for people with mental illness, which I tracked down when Anna was still living with us.

I'm sure Caroline* put in many more hours than she was paid for, trying to help Anna. Apart from taking Anna shopping and out for coffee to relieve her loneliness, Caroline actually secured Anna a place at a residential mental health facility called PARC, which stands for adult Prevention and Recovery Care.

The stay would only be for a few weeks, but Caroline and I - and Anna herself had great hopes that it could be the start to a productive life.

So Anna showed up on time at this place on the first morning, which was a huge accomplishment for her. But then she panicked. What if they wouldn't let her have as much Seroquel as she felt she needed? Just in case, she stuffed the pills she had with her into her underpants. As the admitting nurse walked her to her room, the pills fell out.

Even though this was medication that Anna had been prescribed, she had lied about having it. She should have handed it over. She had breeched the rules of the facility, and so she was sent away.

Anna (pictured left) grew up in an extremely close family that did everything they could to protect her.
Anna (pictured left) grew up in an extremely close family that did everything they could to protect her.

This was a terrible decision. I don't blame the nurse; she was only following the protocol. I blame the Victorian Government, which provides substantial funding for both Odyssey House and PARC.

You, the government, told us that our daughter could not participate in an addiction rehabilitation program because she had a mental illness. Later, she was admitted to one of your mental health facilities, and within minutes you ejected her because you discovered she was abusing substances.

Do you even begin to realise how much courage it took for her to front up to that place? This desperately sick girl finally reached out to you for help that was far beyond the capacity of her family or individual professionals to provide. And you turned her away.

I hope that in the three years since then, you have begun to learn that for so many people, mental illness and addiction are hopelessly intertwined.

How about the times, while Anna was still living with us and in the months after, when she was taken by police or ambulance to an emergency department in one of your public hospitals?

We told you, and increasingly Anna herself told you, that she needed to be in a locked psych ward. There were times you admitted her for a few days, such as when she was so psychotic that she screamed in fear because she believed the nurses were preternatural gang members dressed in medical scrubs.

More often, you instructed her to lie there in the ED till she sobered up, and then she had to leave. There weren't enough beds in the psych ward for her, you said. She wasn't bad enough. It took the death of a much-loved man to prove how bad she really was.

As Anna got older, she sometimes recognised she needed help. She was devastated when she was turned away.
As Anna got older, she sometimes recognised she needed help. She was devastated when she was turned away.

I would like to find that this too has changed, that families and clients themselves might be believed when they say they need to be locked up before they kill themselves or commit a heinous crime.

But then, as I was writing this article, I took a break to have a coffee and scroll through the news on my phone. And there it was, a story that made me nauseous. A young Victorian woman has been charged with the murder of a promising masters student from India, the only son of his distraught parents.

According to the author of the article, the woman posted on social media that she was not taken seriously when she told her psychiatrist she was "sick". Apparently she also wrote, "If only they believed me when I said I'm not sane … I live in fear, afraid of what's behind the corner, my heart is black … demons are real and ghosts are too, they live inside us and sometimes they win."

This is bone-chillingly similar to what Anna admitted to me, and to government agencies.

We need a better system. We need more places in secure psychiatric facilities, and people should to be able to stay there longer than just a few days.

Patients as sick as Anna need enforced and supervised time to re-establish sleep patterns, absorb good nutrition and be stabilised with counselling and medication. Only then, when the howling demons in their heads have been reduced to a background murmur, can they be expected to begin to make rational decisions.

After they leave the psych ward, they should be offered long-term placement in a residential rehabilitation facility where they are given compassionate care by a team of experts who know how to help people with the dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction.

After a couple of years learning and practising life skills, some of these people may be able to take on all the responsibilities of an independent life. Many others will need help with some aspects of being an adult. They might be able to hold down a job, for example, but still need help with budgeting, cleaning, cooking and keeping friends. These people should be provided with supported housing and dedicated helpers like Caroline.

Of course, my plan would require a lot of money. But how many millions of dollars is it going to cost to keep Anna and others like her in prison or a forensic mental health hospital for decades? Who can put a price on the precious lives they've taken, or the families they have shattered?

 

 

Mary has written a book about Anna and their family’s experience to try and get her some help.
Mary has written a book about Anna and their family’s experience to try and get her some help.

 

Gorgeous Girl by Mary Pershall, published by Penguin Random House, is available now, RRP $34.99