A teacher killed himself months after suffering a bout of crippling altitude sickness during a trekking trip to the Himalayas with his wife, an inquest heard.
Paul Connell, 33, was found dead at the bottom of cliffs near his home in Ramsgate, Kent, after struggling with anxiety following the incident, leaving his family a note reading ‘Voices in my head. I’m sorry. Love you all x’.
He was travelling through Asia with his wife Lisa last September when he was struck down by the illness at 10,000ft on the Annapurna range in Nepal, which affected him so badly he texted his mother Donna Ayres telling her he wanted to ‘throw himself off the mountain’.
Although he was airlifted to hospital and appeared to have recovered, Mr Connell and his wife returned home to Kent months later due to his homesickness.
He was taken straight to hospital by his mother after landing at Heathrow after she described him as ‘looking like a heroin addict’.
The inquest was told he was in and out of hospital between February and March and had tried to contact his GP 21 times the day before he died on March 26.
Paul Connell, right with wife Lisa, killed himself months after developing altitude sickness while the couple were trekking the Annapurna range in Nepal in October 2018, pictured
The former teacher, 33, pictured with his wife in Vietnam, began to suffer from anxiety following the incident and while awaiting treatment in Nepal texted his mother Donna to say he wanted to ‘throw himself off the mountain’
Mrs Connell, pictured with Paul, said she wants to warn others of the dangers of mental health problems after her husband struggled to get treatment when back home in Kent
Mr Connell, pictured left with Lisa on their wedding day in 2014 and right in Sri Lanka, was described as a ‘really happy guy’ before the altitude sickness
It is not the first time altitude has been linked with mental health problems, with Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton previously revealing she suffered depression after attempting to climb Mount Everest last year.
She said oxygen deprivation up the world’s highest mountain left her feeling suicidal.
Meanwhile research published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry in 2018 found people living in high-altitude areas of the United States are more likely to commit suicide and suffer depression.
Mrs Connell has now spoken out to warn others to watch out 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 in September last year.
The couple met in Australia, pictured, in 2012 and married two years later. They previously lived in Vietnam where they worked as English teachers
An inquest in Canterbury heard Mr Connell, pictured with his wife in Nepal, had not displayed mental health problems before the trek
The 33-year-old, pictured in Thailand, initially recovered after being airlifted to hospital, but became homesick after several more months travelling in Asia
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 mother to say he wanted to jump off.
CAN ALTITUDE SICKNESS CAUSE POOR MENTAL HEALTH ?
Altitude sickness is when breathing becomes difficult because there is a lack of oxygen at high altitude.
Altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness (AMS), can become a medical emergency if ignored.
It normally develops between six and 24 hours after reaching altitudes more than 3,000m (9,842 feet) above sea level.
Victoria Pendleton struggled with depression after developing altitude sickness and signs of hypoxia while trying to climb Mount Everest, pictured
Symptoms are similar to those of a bad hangover, according to NHS, including headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite and shortness of breath.
At high altitude, the body is trying to compensate for the lack of oxygen in other areas of the body.
A lack of oxygen leads to deterioration and eventually death of cells. This is referred to as hypoxia.
Hypoxia, a condition is known to affect Everest climbers, can initially cause confusion and poor decision and is linked to poor mental health.
According to scientific literature, the initial mood experienced at altitude could also be euphoria, followed by depression.
With time, individuals may also become quarrelsome, irritable, anxious, and apathetic.
Research has found that rates of depression and suicide are greater for those living in high altitudes.
In 2018, Victoria Pendleton, a former British Olympic, said she had suffered severe depression and had contemplated suicide after her failed Everest expedition. She later split from her husband.
Her expedition in April 2018 ended when Ms Pendleton showed signs of hypoxia.
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 tenth highest mountain, Annapurna I Main, kill almost a third of those who attempt to climb them with 61 deaths out of 191 summit ascents.
In October 2014, at least 43 people died as a result of snowstorms and avalanches on and around Annapurna, in Nepal’s worst ever trekking disaster.
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 flew home to Ramsgate in the first week of February, where he was rushed straight from the airport to A&E at the QEQM Hospital in Margate 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 had counselling but struggled to get a grip on his anxiety and doctors were left baffled by his case because he had never suffered from mental health problems before the Himalaya hike.
The inquest at Canterbury Coroner’s Court found Mr Connell killed himself on March 26.
Mr Connell met his wife in Sydney in January 2012, while both were working in Australia.
The pair bonded over a shared love of travelling and adventure, and went on to travel around South East Asia before settling 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 once again – and tick some places off their bucket list including Nepal and India.
But it was about six weeks into their trip to the Himalayas that Mr Connell became ill.
Mrs Connell said her husband returned home in February after struggling to sleep. His mother Donna then took him straight to hospital after claiming he ‘looked like a heroin addict’
Although he tried to get treatment for anxiety and depression, he was unable to get a bed at a private treatment facility and was not recommended for specialist NHS services after an initial assessment
Mrs Connell, pictured with Paul on their wedding day, said her husband continued to suffer from panic attacks despite being given medication
Mrs Connell, of Derry, Northern Ireland, 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, Mr Connell stopped sleeping once again.
Mrs Connell said: ‘He just become so frustrated and anxious. 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 and 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.
Mr Connell, pictured in Nepal, even tried to injure himself with a rock while in and out hospital earlier this year
She added: ‘I could see that he was still having panic attacks, and this is the point he started talking about dark thoughts.’
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.
Mrs Connell said: ‘We were hoping something physical would show up. 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 Mrs Connell’s sister’s house in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, in late February, in the hope a change of scenery would help.
The couple, pictured in India, also went to see Mrs Connell’s family in Northern Ireland to try to benefit from a change of scenery
Mrs Connell said: ‘We thought it would be good to come back here and relax and have some quiet time with my family.
‘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.
However a month later he took his own life after making 21 attempts to call his GP, but his calls failed to connect.
DS Paul Deslandes investigated the circumstances surrounding Mr Connell’s death and told the inquest that two dog walkers found 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.
The inquest at Canterbury Coroner’s Court ruled Mr Connell, pictured with his wife in India, took his own life
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.’
Helen Greatorex, chief executive of the Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, said: ‘We were so very sad to hear of the tragedy of Paul’s death.
‘Our thoughts and sincerest condolences are with his family and those who loved him.
‘We have, as everyone would expect, commenced a detailed review in to what happened in the lead up to the tragedy and are doing this in partnership with other agencies who knew Paul.
‘We will ensure that in particular, Paul’s family are able if they wish to include questions to which they would like answers.
‘We will share the final report with both Her Majesty’s Coroner and Paul’s family.’
- For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see www.samaritans.org for details.