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Journalist Kathryn Torney on reunion with woman she met on Belfast bridge in grip of mental health crisis

Journalist Kathryn Torney encountered 'Josephine' in Belfast city centre as the woman was gripped by an acute mental health crisis. In this remarkable article, she describes meeting her months later and hearing the heart-rending story of her baby daughter's death and the woman's slow recovery from grief and depression

Fateful day: the Albert Bridge, where Kathryn Torney had the encounter with ‘Josephine’
Fateful day: the Albert Bridge, where Kathryn Torney had the encounter with ‘Josephine’

By Kathryn Torney

I gasped when I first saw her, seriously concerned by a woman walking across Albert Bridge in central Belfast just after 9am in only her bra and pants. "What's she doing?" I asked the taxi driver beside me as she reached the end of the bridge spanning the River Lagan.

"She's taken her rings off and set them on the wall," he said. "I think she's going to jump."

He suggested we turn back and I agreed. We made an awkward U-turn in the rush-hour traffic, went back over the bridge, past the train station, under the railway bridge and round to Laganbank Road.

We couldn't see her at first and both fell silent, but then she walked towards us again on the footpath from behind a tree which had blocked our view.

We made a quick plan: I would talk to her and he'd ring the police if needed.

I got out of the taxi.

"Hey, are you okay?" She walked on quickly, shouting something back at me I couldn't really make out. I ran to keep up with her as she strode on. "I just want to check you're okay."

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She turned around.

"Why have you blood on your hands?" I asked, hoping my voice sounded calmer than I felt.

She stopped and looked into my face. Another woman walking by took off her coat and placed it gently over her shivering shoulders. We got her to sit down on a kerb and I draped my coat over her bare legs. There was a small gaping cut on one of her fingers and dry blood caked over both hands.

I got down to her level. She was speaking fast, crying, shaking. She talked about someone trying to poison her, she couldn't trust anyone, and, no, there was no one we could call for her - "You think l'm mad, but I'm not" - everyone controls her, someone was trying to give her fake drugs, she was worried about her son.

I called 999. They asked her name, her address, her age (she was in her 30s). I passed on what she said and I told her - let's call her Josephine - that she was okay, she was going to be fine.

While I was still speaking to the operator, a police car pulled up and two male officers came over. I let the call handler know they had arrived and hung up. I later learned that others had called the police before me, including Josephine's mum.

One officer gave Josephine his heavier coat to put on. She nodded when I asked if she wanted me to stay with her and I thanked the girl with the kind face who had stood calmly beside me and now walked away. Josephine and I moved into the back seat of the police car.

The taxi driver was still there on the street, standing back, the hazard lights flashing on his hastily parked vehicle. He was the person who immediately knew Josephine needed help and turned back.

He came forward then and passed over her ring, which he'd retrieved off the wall. I gave it to one of the policemen at Josephine's direction. We didn't realise then its significance.

"Will you test it for poison?" she asked the officer.

He asked her how she'd got there, what happened that morning. Her answers were recorded on a small camera he held towards her from the front seat of the police car as she sat beside me squeezing blood from the cut on her finger. She wasn't shaking as much as before.

She told us she'd taken off her clothes and shoes and thrown away her handbag as she walked along Short Strand. Her phone had gone too. I now know she wasn't intending to jump into the water - she was just getting rid of "poisoned" items that were touching her body.

"They've bugged the house. I know they have."

She really wanted us to believe her. Her eyes were pleading with us to understand and to listen.

The police officers were calm and unemotional, as they probably needed to be. I was still worried about her son and if someone had hurt her and what was happening in her mind. Surely, there was some truth in the middle of all of this?

A female police officer arrived, covered Josephine in a large foil blanket and she moved her into the back of a second police car.

It felt then like it was time for me to go. It seemed like hours had passed, but our encounter had maybe lasted 30 minutes. I said goodbye and told Josephine, once again, that she was going to be okay.

The truth was, I didn't know if she would be.

Personally, I was shaken and very worried about her. I was able to find out the next day that she had been admitted to hospital.

The journalist in me had more questions at that point. How do our public services in Northern Ireland deal generally with people in mental health crisis? How many people does this happen to?

And, the most important question of all, what happened to Josephine after she left me?

I have thought often about Josephine since our encounter on the bridge a few months ago. Is she, as I told her she would be, doing okay?

I didn't want to disrupt her recovery, or cause her any more pain, but I also felt I couldn't let her story go. Our paths crossed for a reason.

The Belfast Health Trust decided to contact her, as they felt they had a duty of care to tell her about this article. I sent an email to be passed on to her and she agreed to meet with me.

Last week, we shared a table in a Belfast cafe. Both slightly hesitant at the start, our circumstances so different to before. But there was also a familiarity between us, a sense that we had already shared an important life experience.

Her hair is a different colour, but her eyes are the same - wide and blue with long lashes. They weren't full of fear this time. They were calm and kind and settled. She wore a polka dot dress and black leather jacket. She is petite and softly spoken, but I can also feel her strength.

"I lost my daughter four years ago. She was six months and one day old. She never made it out of hospital. That's when my mental health problems started," she told me, her voice gentle. We discussed her baby girl's beautiful name, her time in hospital and the impact of her death.

"I was very up and down and went through long periods of depression and being manic. I wasn't sleeping, or eating. I kept getting palmed off by my GP that it was complex grief and post-natal depression, even though my mum and my granny are bipolar and my dad and brother have schizophrenia."

What does she remember about the day we last met?

"I do recognise you. I remember thinking you were some kind of social worker. I guess you sort of were. I remember being in a police car and I remember a foil blanket, but I don't remember how I got there.

"I know I'd shown up at my mum's door earlier that day, screamed in my dad's face and said something awful to my mum. She rang the police after I left because she was scared that I was going to hurt myself, or someone else."

She remembers thinking everyone was against her and out to get her. We worked out she'd walked about two miles from her mum's house and she tells me that the ring she put on the wall contained her daughter's ashes.

"I thought I was being poisoned. I was terrified. I was taken to the police station, where I had to give a statement.

"Then, they took me to the Mater Hospital and asked me would I be happy to sign myself in to the Rathlin Ward at Knockbracken. I said I would do that. I knew I needed help."

Josephine spent three weeks in the Rathlin Ward and then moved to the new Acute Mental Health Unit at Belfast City Hospital, where she stayed another three weeks.

"It wasn't home, but it was a much nicer setting and less like a hospital. My daughter was in hospital her entire life, so hospitals don't really agree with me.

"It was really busy in the acute unit when I was there. As soon as someone was well enough to leave, there was another person in the bed. I still keep in contact with some of the people I met there. It felt like a bit of a family and we all got on.

"There were two girls in their twenties who had tried to kill themselves. It just felt so wrong that they were having to go through that. They were very good with me and we are still in touch on Facebook."

During her time in hospital, Josephine was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis. She now takes lithium and other medication. "I was glad to get the diagnosis," she said. "It was justification for me that it was not just grief, but even when I was first in hospital, I was anxious about what they were giving me.

"I rang my mum and she told me to take it and that I would get better. I needed that reassurance. Once the medication kicked in, it became a lot easier. I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life."

She and her ex-partner share custody of their 11-year-old son.

"It was hard for my son to get his head around it all. After everything we have been through as a family, I have to be very honest with him," Josephine said.

"I am feeling great and I am hopeful that, if I stay on my medication, what happened that day won't happen again. There is a home treatment team if I need them, or feel I am starting to slip back. It's nice to know that I have support. They want me to wait a while before I start counselling for my daughter.

"My family understand that I was ill. My mum reminds me to take my medication and can spot the signs. If I start to get manic, or depressed, I clean the house, or take the dog out, or spend time with my son. I channel it into something positive. It is time to get on with my life."

Josephine was keen to speak out about mental ill-health and to contribute her voice to this article. She didn't whisper in the crowded cafe, or apologise for her illness. It just is what it is.

She choose the pseudonym Josephine. I told her that this was her story and I wanted her to feel in control of it.

"I don't hide my mental illness. I don't see the point in doing that," she said.

"There is still stigma, but it is an illness. My brother was in Knockbracken as a teenager and, when he came out, I remember people looking at him like he had two heads. The stigma was much worse then.

"People can see a broken leg, but they can't see a broken brain. Mental health needs to be taken more seriously.

"I am glad that I got the help I needed in the end, but it should not have escalated to the point that it did.

"If anyone ever comes across a situation like what happened to me, just try your best to help and get them the right help. Even just having a chat with someone can make them feel better. And if anyone feels like I did, try to go back to your doctor, or maybe go to a charity like Inspire, or contact the Samaritans.

"I am feeling positive. I would like to say that me being bipolar does not define me. I can go on and have a good life.

"I am in the early stages, but I'm back doing normal, mundane things, like the school run and walking the dog. The things that you take for granted.

"It's those little things that I missed."

Kathryn Torney is editor of Belfast-based investigative website The Detail. A longer version of this article can be read at https://www.thedetail.tv/. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in the article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 800

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