My name is Colleen Bell. Stephen O’Neill was my uncle.
Stephen was my uncle, but he was much more than that. He was like a big brother, the best big brother you could imagine. I grew up in the same house as Stephen and we were extremely close.
As I grew older, we became great friends, sharing music, movies, life dreams and worries. I could talk to Stephen about anything.
In 2013 I moved to Melbourne, Australia. Stephen set up WhatsApp shortly after that and we were able to send video messages and phone each other. He would phone me during my morning work break as he was going to bed. I came home for a visit in December 2014 and that would be the last time I seen him, hugged him.
Around June 2016 I noticed he had gone quiet on WhatsApp and few days later my mummy rang me as I was walking to work. She told me something was wrong with Stephen, he was having some sort of breakdown, he was sick. I remember her telling me that he kept saying it was some tablets he was put on recently and me dismissively saying “how could it be the tablets”.......(how stupid were we).
Instead of listening to Stephen I began searching for other answers, could he have bipolar etc? He fitted most of the criteria, he was acting so out of character.
A couple of weeks had passed. My fiancé Patrick and I went to Cole’s, I remember we were going to get the ingredients for Salted Chilli Chicken....my basket was almost full and the I got a phone call.......Mummy. I knew instantly, it was too early for her to be ringing me. Fear swept through me as I answered the phone to her screaming, crying, howling..... “Stephen’s done it.”
I dropped my basket; I don’t remember much more except Patrick escorting me out of the shop and through the car park.
We got back to Ireland within two days, never to return. We left everything in Melbourne except what we needed. I cried the whole plane journey (I feel sorry for the lady next to me who kept handing me tissues, I couldn’t even look at her to explain) but the car trip from Dublin airport to Coalisland felt even longer than Melbourne to Dublin.
As the initial state of shock eased and I came round a bit I started to talk to mummy and my Aunty who just kept saying “it was the tablets, it was the tablets”.....I was almost feeling sorry for them, I thought they were lashing out, looking for something to blame.
It wasn’t until a few days after Stephen’s funeral, because the more I heard mummy talking about it, I decided to research. I found the name of the tablet he was started on and googled “Can sertraline cause suicide?”. I was absolutely horrified at the information I found so easily; it even had a black box warning in the U.S. Then I came across Woody’s story (woodymatters.com) which was identical to what happened to Stephen, same tablet, same timeframe, same cruel death.
How could we have been so stupid? Why did we not listen to Stephen? Why did the crisis team keep saying he would not act on his thoughts? How did we not know this type of medication can CAUSE suicidal thoughts? Why were we told Stephen was low risk?! Why was Stephen not just taken off the meds he had only began?! So many questions.
I now know Stephen’s last few weeks inside out and back to front, as if I was there with him. I prepared the case for Stephen’s inquest and know every significant date and every medication he was prescribed. He started sertraline for mild anxiety and sleep disturbance on 16th June 2016 and within 48 hours had a “catastrophic reaction” (words used at Stephen’s inquest). At Stephen’s inquest it was also agreed he had akathisia. You can read Stephen’s story in full here: https://www.facebook.com/107370804128296/posts/120820129450030/?d=n
Stephen dedicated his life to helping others. He was the most kind, talented and genuine person you could ever met. He was an artist and a musician, but it was his very nature that brought thousands of people from all over the country to his funeral. He touched so many lives when he was alive and I hope now, even in death, he will continue to help others through his story.
I have had my eyes wide open since Stephen’s death. I have come to learn the unethical practices of the pharmaceutical companies; how drugs come to market; the questionable relationships between the drug companies, regulators and guideline makers and above all how much harm prescribed drugs are causing with little or no acknowledgment and/or understanding from doctors, suicide prevention strategists, politicians and charities. As prescription rates continue to skyrocket, so too do our suicide rates.
Above all, I have learned the sad, hard truth is that our family is not alone, and Stephen’s story is not unique.
Click here to read more accounts of stolen lives.
Stephen killed himself after taking sertraline