Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland woman's warning as husband takes life after Himalayan trek sickness

'Paul was such a happy guy ... but something happened that made him take his own life'

Lisa and Paul Connell at their wedding on a Vietnam beach in 2014
Lisa and Paul Connell at their wedding on a Vietnam beach in 2014
Ramsgate in Kent, where Paul Connell ended his life

By Ralph Blackburn

A Northern Ireland woman whose husband killed himself after suffering a bout of crippling altitude sickness during a trekking trip to the Himalayas has urged anyone in distress to seek help.

Paul Connell was struck by such terrible anxiety that he was airlifted off the 8,000m Annapurna range after climbing just under a third of the way up.

The trip was the start of a downward spiral that eventually led to Mr Connell (33) returning home, only to take his own life at cliffs near his family home in Ramsgate, Kent.

In his pocket, a note was found which read: "Voices in my head. I'm sorry. Love you all x."

Now his wife Lisa, from Londonderry, has spoken out to warn others to watch for the signs of mental health decline.

The 35-year-old said: "Paul was a really happy guy, he had a great life and he wasn't suffering with depression or anxiety.

"It was something that happened really fast, really intensely, over such a short space of time.

"This can happen to anyone, it can happen to the strongest of people, physically and mentally.

"Someone can change, something can suddenly snap in someone's head. You just never know."

Mr and Mrs Connell were travelling on a trip of a lifetime to Nepal and set out last September. They were due to spend two months in the area, but Mr Connell suddenly began suffering panic attacks and severe anxiety and was unable to sleep.

While he was up there, he texted his mum Donna Ayres to say he wanted to jump off.

Mrs Connell said that her husband became so unwell so quickly that he paid for a helicopter to take him back to the foot of the mountains.

The Annapurna Range is one of the most hazardous to climb in the world.

The peaks - which include the world's 10th highest mountain, Annapurna I Main - kill almost a third of those who attempt to climb them, with 61 deaths out of 191 summit ascents.

After leaving the Himalayas, Mr Connell rapidly improved.

He recuperated for several months as the couple moved on to travel in India, before he slipped into a spiral of depression and insomnia from which he never recovered.

Struggling to sleep, Mr Connell cut his trip short and flew home to Ramsgate in the first week of February, where he was rushed straight from the airport to A&E at a local hospital by his mother.

She told an inquest into his death he looked "like a heroin addict" when she met him off his flight.

Mr Connell was in and out of hospital over several months, and although he had counselling, he struggled to get a grip on his anxiety.

Doctors were left baffled by his case, because he had never suffered from mental health problems before hiking to 3,000m. An inquest at Canterbury Coroner's Court found Mr Connell jumped to his death from the cliffs near the seaside town on March 26.

Paul and Lisa Connell met in Sydney in January 2012, while they were both working in Australia.

With a shared love of travelling and adventure, the pair became close very quickly.

After exploring South East Asia, they settled in Hanoi, Vietnam, working as English teachers.

They married in July 2014, in a small ceremony on a beach in Vietnam, which Mrs Connell described as "perfect".

They made their home in Vietnam but came back to visit family during Christmas 2017 after Mr Connell's elder sister Aimee was diagnosed with cancer. She died on Christmas Day, but Mrs Connell said her husband had been coping with the death.

It was this that inspired the pair to go travelling again - and to tick some places off their bucket list, including Nepal and India.

But about six weeks into their trip to the Himalayas, Mr Connell became ill.

Mrs Connell said: "Once he came off that mountain he was the same normal happy Paul again.

"He embraced the first few months of India, he was happy."

But when the pair were in Bangalore in January, Paul stopped sleeping again.

"He just become so frustrated and anxious," she said. "Paul woke up at 4am one night and said he needed to go home.

"I thought we could just go somewhere really quiet, but he just had it in his head he wanted to go home."

Mr Connell returned to the care of his family, but had said he would try to get better so he could rejoin his wife.

However, she was so worried about him, she ended up flying back to the UK five days later.

When she saw him, she was shocked by his condition.

"I could see that he was still having panic attacks, and this is the point he started talking about dark thoughts," she said.

Mrs Connell took him to hospital again, and said he began crying and pleading with doctors: "If you have to sedate me, sedate me, just please make me sleep."

They carried out physical checks on Mr Connell, but could not find anything wrong.

"We were hoping something physical would show up," she said.

"Something which would explain Paul being like this, because this person was no longer the Paul we all knew and loved. It was like a different person."

While in hospital, he tried to injure himself with a rock. He was given anti-depressants and sleeping pills, but the inquest heard that although he had seen a counsellor the day before his death he was not recommended for further mental health assessments from specialist services.

Mr Connell said he wanted to go to a psychiatric treatment centre called The Beacon in Ramsgate, where patients are monitored closely, but there was no space.

The couple went to Mr Connell's sister's house in Newcastle, Co Down, in late February, in the hope a change of scenery would help.

"We thought it would be good to come back here and relax and have some quiet time with my family," Mrs Connell said.

"It was the first time my sister and her husband had seen him in a long time, and they couldn't believe the change in him.

"It was like a completely different person. Paul was really anxious.

"His whole demeanour had a really nervous energy, an uncomfortable look. His eyes were kind of glassy."

He had to leave early, as a counselling space had come up.

The pair continued to speak every day on the phone, while Mr Connell took his medication, saw his therapist and spent time with his parents.

"He was seeing his counsellor once a week, he was doing everything," Mrs Connell said.

However, a month later he took his own life after making 21 attempts to call his GP. His calls failed to connect.

DS Paul Deslandes investigated the circumstances surrounding Mr Connell's death and told the inquest two dog walkers heard a "loud thud like a boulder falling" before seeing Mr Connell lying face down on the beach 50ft below.

Members of the public attempted to revive him for 15 minutes before paramedics arrived and took over CPR, but he died 25 minutes later.

Coroner James Dillon ruled that Mr Connell had taken his own life.

Mrs Connell said: "I think the biggest thing is to listen to someone who is starting to speak out about it.

"And listen to what they are asking for, because they know themselves what they are capable of dealing with."

  • If you are affected by any issues in this article, contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Lifeline on 0808 808 8000

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