Tributes paid to father-of-three and tireless mental health campaigner

Tributes have been paid to Terry O'Shea, who has died aged 53.

Tributes have been paid to Terry O'Shea, who has died aged 53. - Credit: Courtesy of Terry O'Shea's family

For nearly a decade there has been one consistent voice speaking out against failing mental health care in Norfolk and Suffolk, an unstoppable force in standing up for the vulnerable and holding those with the power to make changes to account.

And since his death at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) on April 10, aged 53, the true extent of the colossal impact Terry O’Shea made to the lives of those lucky enough to know him has become clear.

Known by many as the power behind the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk, he was a sympathetic ear, a tireless activist and above all a father, husband and friend.

“And he knew everybody,” said Joan Bufton, his wife of 23 years.

The pair met in Sheffield, where Terry was studying electronic engineering at the university and Joan, then just 18, was studying medicine.

But it was not until a number of years later, when Terry was working in London, that their love story blossomed.

Joan said: “I think that was probably when he would say his life began.”

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At that time Terry worked on commission in sales and marketing, a time which Joan described as “the yuppie days, where there was lots of money to be made in the City of London” and lived in East Finchley.

He particularly enjoyed the Lahore Kebab House on Commercial Road, and Joan said the couple hung around in Muswell Hill when she finished her studying and moved to the capital to live with Terry in 1996.

By 1999 the couple moved to Norwich, as psychiatry - the field in which Joan works - had taken a turn for the worst in the city, foreshadowing what would become Terry’s most passionate fight in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Before the campaign, he worked in Billericay for a software company, driving to Essex for a couple of years.

But “his perspective changed a bit,” Joan said, when he became ill with ulcerative colitis in his 30s.

“He spent quite a lot of time in the NNUH, and he was really ill at that time, so that kind of changed his outlook on life a little bit,” Joan said.

After he got back on his feet, the shock gave him the push he needed to study history at the University of East Anglia, where he got a starred first.

“He was really good at it,” Joan said, and he went on to gain a masters from Cambridge University before undertaking some consultancy work and starting some businesses but then Joan said the campaign took over.

“I remember him going to that first campaign meeting in 2013,” she said. “But I remember him saying ‘you do know if I go Joan, there might be some trouble’ - and there was some trouble!

“He said he kind of felt like he’d been taken over by the Holy Spirit, something came over him and he couldn’t help himself and it kind of took over.”

“He didn’t have any intention, I don’t think, when he went along of taking it over."

Terry Skyrme, who was among those who founded the campaign, said he remembered that meeting well.

The Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk protest outside Hellesdon Hospita

The Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk protest outside Hellesdon Hospital. - Credit: Geraldine Scott

“Over 300 people attended the meeting - NSFT staff, patients, service-users, carers and the general public. The meeting was chaired by Ian Gibson, who has also just died - Ian remained a great encouragement and support to the campaign.

“The campaign has continued for almost 10 years and has great support and involvement from many people mostly, I believe, to the energy, empathy and intelligence of Terry O’Shea.”

He said Terry’s working-class background gave him “a proper understanding of the problems faced by many who suffer from mental illness”.

And he said: “It’s so sad that Terry should die so young leaving his young children and Joan; also sad that we have seen very little improvement in mental health services.

"The lack of any improvement has demotivated some members of the campaign, but not Terry O’Shea who has always kept up the fight and encouraged the rest of us. He’ll be badly missed but the fight will go on.”

After that first meeting, Joan said Terry, who lived in Norwich, became heavily involved in the campaign, taking aim at bosses at the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), which at the time was proposing drastic cuts to services under what is now known as the radical redesign.

“It became a real passion for him,” Joan said. “And for the last seven years, that was what he did, it became really important to him to try and sort it out and do something to make things better for people.

“That was the driving force behind what was causing the issue at that time,” Joan said. “And then it became everything.”

She said it was “all-encompassing”.

“He was taking calls at all hours, he also met a lot of the bereaved parents, and I think once you get involved with the bereaved parents it becomes very personal,” she said

Sheila Preston, whose son Leo died in November 2016 while under NSFT’s care described Terry as “her rock”.

Norfolk mental health campaigners.

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, and Luciana Berger, shadow minister for mental health, pictured in 2016 meeting mental health campaigners. Terry O'Shea is pictured fourth from left, at the back. - Credit: Antony Kelly

She said he was “a precious friend who was the cleverest, most caring, kind and humorous person I have ever met".

"He helped me survive the tragic death of my son, Leo, and phoned me at least once a week to help and advise me on anything from buying a new washing machine to IT problems," she said.

“His priority in life was his family, always planning for their future. I shared Terry’s passion for improving the lives of those with mental health conditions. He analysed the failing system of health care, speaking up for those less articulate and confident than himself. Terry’s spirit will live on, inspiring those whose lives he touched and enriched to continue in his memory to care for others in the unselfish, determined way that he exemplified.”

Caroline Aldridge’s son Tim died in 2014 at the age of just 30, having spent half of his life living with complex mental health difficulties.

She said Terry was "kind and gentle" when she needed support.

"Not at all like the fearless champion who spoke out in the media against unsafe, ineffective, or unkind mental health services," she said.

“Over the years, we became friends and I came to understand just how many bereaved relatives Terry quietly supported. It has been my absolute privilege to know Terry. He had a huge capacity to love.

"It was love for his fellow human that kept him speaking up about mental health services. He loved life and his family and he had so much more he wanted to do for others. I will miss his wit, his encouragement, his intellect and his kindness.”

So much time was dedicated to the campaign, Joan joked about how their children Eleanor, Emma, and Harry “had an anti campaign campaign going on when they were little with posters on the wall which read ‘save our father from the mental health campaign’.”

But she said: “It was about standing up for people who he felt didn’t have a voice. It was about defending people who couldn’t defend themselves or felt they couldn’t at the time.”

Terry’s methods often attracted criticism from those at the top - which he secretly saw as a badge of honour - and even after he had been diagnosed with colon cancer which had spread to his liver, and knew he would not survive, he received a letter threatening legal action by the trust over the use of information leaked to the campaign.

But Joan said: “Terry was never against the people who were delivering the services, it was about changing the system. It was about funding and also just the organisation and the way it was run, the focus and the values of the organisation. The campaign was set up by staff.”

Joan said: “It was almost like it became a bit of a mission.

“I think he wanted to be remembered as somebody who tried to make a difference to vulnerable people. I think that’s what was important to him, and obviously us [the family], but the work he did for the campaign to genuinely try and stand up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves.”

When Terry was asked whether he would like an obituary after his death, he said he would be delighted if it “acted as a recruiting call” to the campaign.

The Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk protest taking place in Norwich c

A Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk protest in 2016. - Credit: Steve Adams

Joan said his attitude to the campaign reflected many other things in his life, whether confronting 'chuggers' - street fundraisers - in Norwich city centre, or running down the street in his bare feet after someone vandalising neighbourhood cars.

“He was never afraid to confront what he thought wasn’t right,” she said.

And she laughed: “And so the kids wouldn’t talk with him in the city centre because it was acutely embarrassing. But he couldn’t ignore it if he didn’t think it was right.”

Friends described Terry as loving, thoughtful and knowledgeable.

Jess Goldfinch from the campaign said: “Moons ago, when we were having words, I told Terry he was a cactus. Sometimes prickly, but soft on the inside. He spoke lovingly of his family, as only a husband and father can. I love them for letting us borrow him and give them my love.

“His sardonic wit often had me in stitches. We argued and laughed in equal measure. His love and support and our joint campaign work, over the years, has been immeasurable in value. Unwavering. I will always remember, miss and love my curmudgeonly 'brother'.”

Neighbours Rob and Linda Evans said: “He was the most perfect neighbour. Kind, thoughtful, good humoured and always thoughtful of others. His knowledge on all subjects made him a great person to talk to. His great love for his family was always on his lips. We can’t bear to have lost him but treasure the memories.”

Mark Harrison, a fellow campaigner, said: “Terry was so many things to so many people. He was complex, passionate, committed, intelligent, caring, driven and so much more. I met him through the campaign and we became close friends over the last six years. We were very different people but shared a strong desire for meritocracy, equity and justice for people who couldn’t ‘buy’ their way in life.”

He said: “Terry was a communicator and would speak to anyone, particularly when he had a captive audience in the steam room/sauna at the gym. There isn’t anyone from Bannatynes that doesn’t know how much he loves his wife and kids and how proud he is of how his children are developing into wonderful young adults.”

And he added: “Incurring the ‘wrath of Terry’ you did at your peril, if you were one of the ‘bad guys’. In this increasingly grey and cynical world Terry brought colour, humour, friendship and passion. He was a one off and has left an indelible mark on so many people and lives in a positive and extraordinary way.”

After his death Joan discovered a whole new network she never knew he had been a part of when members of a music forum, largely in America, got in touch and had raised money in his memory.

“These people who he’s never even met, and I didn’t even know existed, cared about him enough to start a collection,” she said.

And she added: “There are so many people, he was really connected, he’s always relied on those relationships he made with friends to be like his family.”

Remembering her husband Joan said: “He was really bright, he was very thoughtful and very intelligent, and very funny. He was very kind and very generous with his time, and he would help anybody.”

Even while in the hospice in recent weeks Terry, who was a Catholic, had a “theological argument about liberation theology and Óscar Romero” with the visiting priest.

“The priest said he was always someone he would remember, because he was so remarkable,” Joan said.

The only thing more important to Terry than the campaign were Joan and his children. Joan described him as the stricter parent, but “very proud” of the three children that he looked after as Joan was often at work.

“He really wanted them to be the best they could be, he was incredibly proud of them,” she said.

On the other hand Terry described Joan in messages to friends as “the anchor of my whole life”. Giving love life advice he said: “My advice is to marry some mug cleverer and kinder than you are. That’s what I did, worked well. I managed better looking too - that was pushing my luck.”

Joan said he was “incredibly stoic in a way I would not have really thought possible” when he found out his prognosis.

“He did really accept it, and he said he’d had a really good life,” she said. “He was incredibly brave.”

Terry leaves his wife, Joan, 50, and children Eleanor, 15, Emma, 14, Harry, 12, and more friends than it is possible to count.

Terry’s funeral will be held at St John the Baptist Cathedral on Earlham Road on April 30 however attendance is restricted due to coronavirus and the service will be live streamed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOvrRQraFHU. The family has requested donations be made to the mental health campaign, at norfolksuffolkmentalhealthcrisis.org.uk/donate/.

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