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How academic genius Richard Erskine died homeless and alone aged 27

Janet Erskine believes her deeply troubled son was failed by a system that should have treated his mental health issues. Instead, he was handed £300 and left to fend for himself

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Janet Erskine with a photo of Richard

Janet Erskine with a photo of Richard

Freddie Parkinson

A treasured picture of mum and son

A treasured picture of mum and son

Richard with sisters Gemma and Helen and his mother Janet

Richard with sisters Gemma and Helen and his mother Janet

Richard with his gran Maureen Hutchinson, sisters Gemma and Helen, and his mum

Richard with his gran Maureen Hutchinson, sisters Gemma and Helen, and his mum

Richard Erskine as a toddler

Richard Erskine as a toddler

Janet Erskine with a photo of Richard

The first time Richard Erskine's name appeared in the papers it was for a stunning performance in his GCSE exams.

The last time was in the death notices, after he'd succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism at just 27.

This is a chilling story of brilliance gone begging, of a family left broken and of a health and social care system that failed Richard when he needed it most.

The Cambridge-educated prodigy's lifeless body was discovered under a bridge near the Belfast hostel where he'd been staying - a shocking denouement to the all-too-short life of a gifted ex-Methodist College pupil that had promised so much yet ended so tragically on October 12, 2019.

"Richard was found dead on a Saturday morning after going missing the previous night," said his heartbroken mother Janet Erskine.

Five months on she remains tortured by the unanswered questions she keeps asking herself. Where did it all go wrong? What more could I have done? How on Earth could this have happened?

"Addiction, alcoholism, mental health… everything that affected Richard... it doesn't matter where you're from or what your background is, it can affect anybody," she said.

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A treasured picture of mum and son

A treasured picture of mum and son

A treasured picture of mum and son

Richard, a gifted scholar and a talented musician and singer, isn't the first young person to have his life prematurely truncated by addiction and, sadly, he won't be the last.

But the rate of his descent from brilliant student who harboured dreams of becoming a doctor to shambling drunk with seemingly nothing to live for is just terrifying.

Even so, his 52-year-old mum wants this real life horror story told, both to deter others from embarking upon a similar path and to raise more awareness of care - or, in her view, lack of it - for people with complex addiction and mental health problems.

"Richard had been unwell or struggling with addiction from the age of 19 or 20," said Janet, who has been divorced from Richard's dad Nigel Erskine (59), a retired banker, for 18 months.

Before that, though, the primary school teacher remembers her eldest child as being "incredibly clever" at Methody where, in addition to his academic ability, he was heavily involved in music and drama.

"He was in the choirs, he was president of the Music Society," said Janet, daughter of the former Dean of Dromore Cathedral, the late Roland Hutchinson.

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Richard with sisters Gemma and Helen and his mother Janet

Richard with sisters Gemma and Helen and his mother Janet

Richard with sisters Gemma and Helen and his mother Janet

"He was in their chapel choir, and every orchestra. He sang all over the world with the school choir, from New York to Westminster Abbey. He was also in the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and the Ulster Youth Orchestra, where he played the oboe."

Magheralin native Janet, who has taught at Waringstown Primary for 26 years, was so proud when Richard left school with 10 A*s and an A at GCSE in 2008 and three A*s and an A at A-level.

He got a place at Cambridge to study medicine with a choral scholarship at the College of Gonville and Caius, which the late Professor Stephen Hawking attended. But it wasn't long before the first cracks started to show through a veneer of apparent perfection.

"Everyone had Richard on a pedestal," said Janet.

"Then he went off to Cambridge in 2010 and failed his exams at the end of first year. It was a real shock; Richard had never failed anything."

Just before Christmas 2011 the alarm bells rang louder when Richard returned from a choir tour of the Far East heavily intoxicated.

"That one day was the day I realised Richard had a major problem," she said.

"He was trying hard to talk on the way back from Belfast City Airport but he was too drunk. That Christmas it became very clear that we were in trouble.

"He was drinking alone in his room, and then he was up in the middle of the night cooking. He was secretly stashing alcohol around the house."

Desperate to help their troubled son, Janet and Nigel took him out of university for the first time. But, if anything, the situation got worse.

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Richard Erskine as a toddler

Richard Erskine as a toddler

Richard Erskine as a toddler

"He'd become violent," she said.

"One day his sister had to call the police while I held him down to stop him and his dad fighting, he was wrecking the house."

After that the police "lifted him numerous times" which led to Richard staying in 'safe' houses (ie with Janet's mum or her two sisters).

She added: "They initially thought I was exaggerating Richard's problem but soon realised I wasn't."

Richard had split up with his girlfriend in the first term of his second year, and drowned his sorrows in an expensive big bottle of whiskey.

"Once, when he was sober, Richard told me it was that bottle of whiskey which started everything," said Janet.

"He said he discovered that the more he drank, the more it cleared his head."

In October 2012 Richard was hospitalised after an overdose of pills.

His dad drove all night and brought him home from Cambridge.

"He eventually agreed to go into Stauros in Armagh for a residential six-week period, and worked very hard at being sober," recalled Janet. "He returned to university in September 2013 and completed third year for his degree, although it had actually taken five years."

When things took another turn for the worse the following year, Janet moved out of the family home in Dollingstown with daughters Gemma (now 23), a business marketing student and Red Bull girl, and Helen (20), who studies civil engineering.

Their other son Peter (26), a trader, was already working in London by then, so Richard stayed with his dad, and they subsequently moved to Lurgan.

"After he graduated Richard started drinking heavily again," Janet said.

"He was being banned from shops, the police were involved on occasions and it reached awful levels at home.

"It partly led to the break-up of our marriage. I was afraid for the girls, so I made a decision to leave Richard and Nigel. This broke our family."

She added: "The night before we left Helen, then aged 13, slept against her bedroom door for fear of her brother."

In 2016 Richard was warned by doctors that he wouldn't see his 40th birthday if he didn't face up to his addiction.

After developing jaundice he did stop, attended AA meetings and got a job with menswear retailers SD Kells in Portadown. He also met new girlfriend Ruth McCormick, a nurse.

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Richard with his gran Maureen Hutchinson, sisters Gemma and Helen, and his mum

Richard with his gran Maureen Hutchinson, sisters Gemma and Helen, and his mum

Richard with his gran Maureen Hutchinson, sisters Gemma and Helen, and his mum

Then Richard was offered a new post with a computer company in November 2017. No one knows why, but on January 1, 2018, he started drinking again.

This time it really was the beginning of the end.

"By the June of that year he was drinking himself unconscious every day and he ended up in hospital," Janet explained.

Following "the row of all rows" when "he got very physical with his father and wrecked the house", Richard got arrested, convicted of assault and criminal damage and ended up in jail.

After a spell on remand in Maghaberry Prison - his parents' houses no longer available to him - Richard, who was now officially homeless, stayed at a Salvation Army hostel prior to Stella Maris.

But he soon ended up back in prison again, this time for two months after going to his girlfriend's house drunk and "wrecking the place".

He "got dry" while incarcerated, but Janet believes subsequent events illustrate how the system ultimately failed her beloved son.

"Richard needed treatment for mental health when he was in jail," she said.

"He should've had the proper support in there, so that when he got out he could have gone straight to somewhere to get the help he desperately needed.

I thought I was doing the right thing by letting him go to prison

"Instead, Social Services handed him £300. He'd been dry for eight weeks. On day two he got £300. On day three he was drunk."

She added: "It was right that Richard got jail time for what he did. But in his situation - an alcoholic with a mental health illness - why wasn't there somewhere to go for help after prison?"

Janet has nothing but praise for Stella Maris, a wet hostel run by homeless charity Depaul in north Belfast, who took Richard in again and did their best to help him.

"Richard's addiction had become so acute, the family could no longer care for him," she said.

"Stella Maris tried to control his alcohol intake but he'd bring a sleeping bag out with him and beg for money on the streets. He ended up in intensive care eight times in 2019, once after drinking a litre of vodka."

He returned to Stella Maris for the last time on Thursday, October 10 and called his mother the following morning, telling her he loved her.

Shorty afterwards he went missing.

"When I didn't hear from him on the Friday night I thought he'd gone on a bender," she recalled.

"The following afternoon I was out walking and realised I'd missed two calls from Stella Maris.

I don't miss the angry, aggressive phone calls or the worry every day about where he is... but I miss him

"I had a terrible knot in my stomach. I just knew. I asked if he was dead and they simply said: 'Yes'."

On October 16, 2019, more than 1,000 people attended the funeral at Shankill Parish Church, Lurgan, where Richard used to sing.

During the service, Bishop of Down and Dromore David McClay "made it very clear why Richard had died".

"We wanted people to know that this can affect any family and that we don't have enough services here," said Janet, adding: "There's not enough money being spent on mental health.

"I'm angry. I was angry with Richard. But there's a link missing in the system. Richard didn't murder anybody. He was in jail because during his drinking period he damaged property.

"There needs to be a better strategy than someone being given £300 and left to his own devices.

"As a parent I should have been able to say: 'My boy needs sectioned'.

"Richard told me many times he didn't want to be like that but he didn't know how to stop it. He'd gone too far."

Janet, a teetotaller, said she can't help feeling guilty.

"I think of all the times he'd been in hospital and we didn't go to see him," she admitted.

"I feel guilty about not giving him somewhere to stay when he called. I thought I was doing the right thing by letting him go to prison.

"I don't miss the angry, aggressive phone calls or the worry every day about where he is... but I miss him, I miss not being able to talk to him.

"What happened has had a huge impact on my other children.

"They miss their brother. To see your three children go to the grave on Christmas day to place a rose on their big brother's grave is heartbreaking.

"He's buried in Magheralin graveyard, where my dad was rector for many years. His grave is directly opposite the gates of where we lived and where he was brought home as a baby, it's so ironic."

Janet revealed that she told her P7 pupils about Richard's death recently.

"A lot of the children were saying 'Mrs Erskine's son died by suicide', so I was straight with them and I just said he died because he drank too much alcohol," she said. "And now they know why I say things to them when they tell me 'Mummy said I could have a drink on New Year's Eve' and they're 11 years of age. They're being told about the perils of smoking, they know all about drugs, so please, let's not glamorise alcohol."

Sitting in the front room of her beautiful Waringstown home, Janet momentarily loses her composure and tears fall.

"I want to say to these people: 'Come with me and I'll show you my son's grave, or come with me to Stella Maris'," she said.

"The people there are just lost because of alcohol. There does come a time when an addiction becomes too difficult to get out of it. Richard really wanted to come out the other side. He wanted to be able to tell his story. I'm telling it to you now because he can't."

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