Sunday 25 February 2018

Kate's great potential lost to society's intolerance for any sign of human frailty

The real tragedy is that it took Kate Fitzgerald's death to make us look at how we handle depression, writes Joanna Kiernan

DYNAMIC: Kate Fitzgerald, who took her own life in August, was passionate about politics and revitalised the Democrats Abroad organisation.
Kate’s parents have spoken about her death from suicide in an attempt to make sense of the loss of their talented and beautiful daughter
DYNAMIC: Kate Fitzgerald, who took her own life in August, was passionate about politics and revitalised the Democrats Abroad organisation. Kate’s parents have spoken about her death from suicide in an attempt to make sense of the loss of their talented and beautiful daughter
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

I knew Kate Fitzgerald in a very casual sense. We studied for a BA in International Relations together in DCU some years ago.

We were friendly, but we were not friends, more acquaintances.

This was partly due to the fact that many of the different personalities of this small class simply did not gel, rather than anything else. Everyone was going in different directions most of the time.

It happens. I had never really given it much thought until recently, when I learned that Kate had taken her own life.

Again, I cannot claim to have been Kate's friend, but I knew her. She, unlike most of the rest of us, who were just keeping our heads above water during college, stood out.

She was the type of young woman you had to admire, partly because of her constantly well-groomed image, but even more so because she was intelligent, articulate, assertive and extremely passionate about politics.

Her soft American twang (she was born in California) also led me to develop a theory that whatever she said always sounded more authentic than what any of my other classmates had to say.

Kate was the type to turn up at class presentations in a suit, always tailored and feminine, while the remainder of the group stood around in hoodies.

You can never tell, but from my experience, in the few years we spent sitting in the same lecture halls, she always seemed like a happy, polite and content young women.

I wasn't surprised to see that Kate became chairwoman of the Irish branch of Democrats Abroad in 2007. Nor did it surprise me when I saw and heard her numerous television and radio appearances as a commentator during the Barack Obama-John McCain presidential election campaign in 2008, and during Obama's Irish visit earlier this year.

Kate, even to those who didn't know her very well, was bound for success.

It wasn't until last week that I learned of the circumstances around Kate's death; that Kate had written to the Irish Times newspaper anonymously before her death, detailing her struggle with depression and how her employers had reacted when she, having tried previously to take her own life, had checked herself into hospital.

"Mine was not a work-related illness," she wrote, "At least not before I entered the hospital. However, when I was released and when I returned to my office, things became different. I knew it would be difficult to explain to my employer, and I knew it would be difficult for them to understand an illness with no visible symptoms"

She added later, "I do not blame my employer. Ultimately those who have not suffered from the illness do not know how to approach it in others -- even those who have suffered from it may find it difficult."

The Irish Times published the article, anonymously, according to Kate's wishes, on Friday, September 9, the day before World Suicide Prevention day, but by the time it was published, Kate Fitzgerald was dead.

On Monday, August 22, Kate had taken her own life.

The day after the article appeared in print, Kate's father Tom Fitzgerald rang the newspaper to say that he was certain the author of this anonymous piece was his daughter Kate.

The pseudo name she had used to contact the paper, "Grace Ringwood," was later deciphered by Kate's heartbroken mother Sally as Kate's grandmother's maiden name and a first name which Sally had often told Kate she would have used, had she had a second daughter.

Kate's death would have been noted, perhaps, in my own mental history as just one of a list of those unexplainable tragedies that become all too common once you grow up and find yourself out in the real world, had it not been for a blog post last week.

The post highlighted Kate's story, revealing Kate's employers as The Communications Clinic, a media training company set up in 2008 by Terry Prone, her husband Tom Savage and their son Anton.

Last Monday, Kate's original article appeared on the Irish Times website in an altered form, with the three paragraphs mentioning her employers removed completely.

It later transpired that the paragraphs had been removed by the Irish Times under legal advice following a complaint by he Communications Clinic about the article.

Whatever the truth behind Kate's death and working conditions, I can say one thing categorically, when Kate Fitzgerald took her own life, the potential for something great died with her.

That is not an empty line I throw out lightly. That is not the loving memory of a dear friend; that is the dispassionate observation of a once very anti-social, quiet student, who saw something in Kate Fitzgerald, something strong and powerful, that could easily have taken her to the White House one day.

Perhaps for Kate, like many bright young Irish people currently working their hearts out in order to carve a career for themselves, the room to grow was just not there for her.

Ireland is not a very healthy place at the moment for the many young people out there whose pride and sometimes even self-worth is so often primarily invested in their careers.

If I know anything about Kate, it is that she was not someone happy to stand still.

The fact that from the depths of depression, and an obviously very pressurised working environment, she could emerge to write with such eloquence about her experience tells us all we need to know about Kate.

It's just so tragic that it took her death for us all to pay attention.

Sunday Independent

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