Mental healthcare concerns raised after ‘Romeo and Juliet’ couple’s deaths

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Mental health officials have been questioned over why there was a delay in responding to a text message revealing that a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ couple intended to commit suicide.

The bodies of Alphira and Christopher Stonehouse, aged 27 and 44, were found in their bedroom in Whyke Marsh, Chichester, on the morning of November 8 last year.

The evening before, Mr Stonehouse sent mental health worker Damian Walsh a text message in which he disclosed their intention to end their lives.

It read: ‘Alphira and I have chosen to end our lives. We have suffered for too long and cannot bear it any longer. Our backdoor and gate are unlocked.’

The inquest into Mrs Stonehouse’s death heard that Mr Walsh did not see the message or that he missed calls from Mr Stonehouse until around 9am the following morning, when he was scheduled to see him.

Concerned at the message, Mr Walsh said he first tried to call Mr Stonehouse but it diverted to voicemail, then sent him a text message but again failed to get a reply.

Police were eventually alerted and the couple - who married in 2005 and had been in regular contact with mental health professionals - were found dead in their two-bedroom home.

Detective Sergeant Sally Arbuckle said in a statement that a note found read: ‘Unless you are the emergency services, do not enter. Alphira and Chris, aka Romeo and Juliet.’

In the room, a television had been showing Romeo and Juliet and a passage from the Shakespearean tragedy was highlighted, the inquest heard.

A post-mortem examination on Mrs Stonehouse - who was her husband’s full-time carer - found she died from an overdose of prescription drugs.

At a separate inquest into Mr Stonehouse’s death last week, a suicide verdict was recorded.

Today, Mrs Stonehouse’s mother, Deborah Jacobs, questioned why the text message revealing the suicidal intentions of the couple was not acted upon sooner.

She asked Mr Walsh: ‘If Chris had sent you 34 texts before this one and none had given any indication of wanting to take their own lives, why didn’t you call 999?’

Mr Walsh said Mr Stonehouse left the message on his work mobile phone the evening before their deaths after he had finished for the day and he read it the following morning.

He added that a full investigation had been launched and that part of it would centre on whether a new policy needs to be drafted relating to mobile phone use.

Mrs Jacobs said her ‘headstrong’ daughter left the family home aged 18 and met Mr Stonehouse through her and his wife at the time.

‘Alphira and I spent a lot of time at loggerheads with each other,’ said Mrs Jacobs, from Redhill, Surrey.

‘Both of us are strong-minded and we clashed, and Chris would take her under his wing because Alphira and I weren’t getting on particularly well.’

Eventually, Mr Stonehouse and his wife split and he formed a relationship with Mrs Stonehouse, who was 17 years his junior, an arrangement Mrs Jacobs said she ‘didn’t entirely’ approve of.

She added: ‘She was an adult and there was nothing I could do.’

Contact between mother and daughter diminished as Mrs Jacobs said ‘a lot of animosity’ existed between them.

‘There were several olive branches and several reconciliations but after a short period it would go back to her being quite mean towards me,’ Mrs Jacobs went on.

Mr Walsh said Mr and Mrs Stonehouse came to see him in April last year seeking help after a ‘significant development’ in their lives which was not expanded upon at the inquest.

The issue meant that they had to give a police statement, he said. ‘Both were distressed about those matters.’

Dr Isabel Fernandez de Sifrim told the inquest that Mrs Stonehouse had taken an overdose and cut her wrist in a previous suicide bid.

When she saw her on May 31, Mrs Stonehouse was having trouble sleeping, suffering from anxiety and experiencing psychotic episodes.

‘All the symptoms were related to something that had happened very recently,’ she said. ‘It was a kind of trigger. She had panic attacks and she wasn’t in control.’

With anti-depressants, her condition started to improve and the ‘risk factors’ disappeared slowly, with her thoughts turning positively to her future, including having children and contacting her father again.

‘I didn’t think she was going to commit suicide,’ the doctor went on.

Recording a verdict that Mrs Stonehouse took her own life, West Sussex coroner Penelope Schofield said: ‘I have to be satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that a person intended to take their own life.

‘I wanted to be sure that Alphira had not been coerced into this.

‘It appears to me that she was able to make up her own mind at the time of her death, and although Mr Stonehouse was some 17 years her senior this was something that she would have undertaken of her accord.’