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‘A different kind of hell’: The agonising story of a Perth mum who couldn’t save her daughter

It’s just all so wrong, Meron Savage says, “this never should have happened.”

Ms Savage has endured more than any mother should, watching the heartbreaking deterioration of her daughter Kate despite the family’s best efforts to get her help.

She spent several excruciating years trying to help her young daughter survive a battle with severe mental illness, her family searching for help via a health system missing the one facility Ms Savage believes could have saved Kate.

“There is nowhere to keep a suicidal child,” Ms Savage says. “There are no facilities in WA where they will take a child or young teen who is suicidal, keep them safe and treat them. And I think that’s awful.”

Kate Savage.

Kate Savage.

The family’s quest to find medication or a treatment that would help Kate ended last month when, at just 13 years old, she stepped in front of a car on Perth’s Albany Highway. Kate died in hospital, and Ms Savage says the family swapped one kind of hell for another.

As she prepares for her daughter’s funeral on Saturday, Ms Savage hopes sharing her story will make people sit up and take notice, and that knowing what families like hers go through leads to changes in a health system she says failed a little girl who first showed signs of mental illness at eight.

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“It’s worth going through the pain of talking about it if it can help make some change along the way,” she says.

“Because it needs to happen. And it needs to happen sooner than the two years it will take for a coronial inquest, or even the six months it will take for the psychiatrist’s investigation.”

Soon after Kate’s death, Health Minister Roger Cook announced the state’s chief psychiatrist would review her case and deliver recommendations to form part of a broader Young People Priority Framework, to be produced by the end of the year. This would identify gaps in services and make recommendations for action.

But Ms Savage doesn’t want to wait that long.

She fears her daughter’s story will become “yesterday’s news”, and the changes she says families desperately need forgotten. She’s watching the Premier announce millions for other projects, while the deadly gap in the state’s mental health system remains wide open.

If there were a gap in a bridge would we continue to drive cars over it while we set up a review team to see if that is a problem?

Meron Savage

“I am happy for people to know the hell that she went through, and we went through, and I know people who are still going through that,” Ms Savage says.

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“For all that was hell, now we’re living a different kind of hell. You can’t have the hope that things can get better, this can be fixed. She’s gone and nothing can ever change that.”

Kate Savage with her sister Bethany.

Kate Savage with her sister Bethany. Credit:Meron Savage

Ms Savage tells a story where her daughter was once deemed “too depressed” to be treated with the therapy she’d been prescribed at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, with the family at one point informed their child was not keen to participate or “buy into” the process, so they would turn her away.

Ms Savage believes this is when Kate lost hope.

Her parents were told at other points in their journey that Kate was behaving the way she did – at times manic, other times severely depressed – to get attention. That her suicide attempts, which by the end numbered about 10, were not serious.

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With nowhere else for Kate to go, the family turned their home into a virtual prison for the child whose intrusive thoughts told her she needed to die. Their lives became dedicated to protecting hers.

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There were stints in Perth Children’s Hospital, where she would be kept safe, but Ms Savage says Kate was not treated with medications, and would then be released back to the exhausted family.

Ms Savage says many other families have contacted her to say they are encountering similar issues.

Meron Savage with her daughters.

Meron Savage with her daughters.Credit:Meron Savage

“They need to not be able to dismiss a child whose parents are crying out for help, who is self-harming, who is openly suicidal, because that child won’t speak to them. I think that’s disgraceful,” Ms Savage says.

She says children, like her daughter, don’t have the ability to see ahead like an adult does. They don’t have the desire to get better, because they are too depressed.

“They need to be treated regardless of whether they want to be treated or not. Adults who are suicidal get kept in hospital whether they want to be there or not, for a considerable length of time until they have been treated.”

Instead, children like her daughter were sent home to parents who tried to keep them alive at home on their own.

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This infuriates Ms Savage, who, as a teacher, could not refuse to teach a child because they didn’t want to learn.

WA Commissioner for Children Colin Pettit says the chief psychiatrist’s review into Kate’s case must be completed quickly and acted on immediately.

“We have already identified a whole range of issues that could be part of the review, but whatever comes up needs to be acted on very quickly,” Mr Pettit says.

“We’ve provided evidence though a number of reports that there are gaps, particularly for child and young people and we would like to see that improved.

“The speed at which the government has enacted a review in the recent week is a very positive step, but we already know much of the problem and that action can be taken as quickly as possible.”

Acting Mental Health Commissioner Jennifer McGrath says there are three in-patient options for teens, but gaps in services are known.

“Perth Children’s Hospital provides an inpatient service for children up to the age of 16 in WA, with youth inpatient services at Fiona Stanley Hospital and Bentley providing services for young people 16 to 24,” she says.

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Ngatti House provides a residential community-based program to young people between 17 and 22 years old, who show signs and symptoms of mental illness while homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Mr Cook has met with Ms Savage to express his condolences and discuss her terrible loss.

“My thoughts go out to Kate’s family and everyone else who has been affected by suicide – it is tragic and devastating and the effects ripple through the community,” he says.

“We know there is more to do to better support young people in Western Australia – and this recent case has highlighted that the current system does not cater for all.”

He says Kate’s story highlights the need to find safe places for young people under 16 years old to go to, not just with acute mental illness, but for ongoing care.

Ms Savage hopes the minister will find those places fast. She worries more young people will need help as the stress of the pandemic takes a toll.

“It’s shattered all of our lives. It’s not only taken her life but it’s changed ours forever.”

If you, or anyone you know, needs mental health support, please call a helpline such as the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; Mental Health Emergency Response Line 1300 555 788 (Metro) or 1800 676 822 (Peel); Rurallink 1800 552 002; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; The Samaritans Crisis Line 08 9381 5555. If it’s a life-threatening emergency, call 000.

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