Finn Higgins was known to users of the Public Address System discussion forums as a keen-minded, literate, witty and sensitive debater, and an asset to the community. What we could not know was the extent to which he was struggling with depression and anxiety in his personal life. These problems were related to an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder: Asperger syndrome. They eventually claimed Finn’s life.
The following story is the work of Finn’s mother, Dianne Standen, for a forthcoming website. Dianne has also written her own story, which will be published both here on Humans in the next few days, and on Dianne’s new website.
“Depression is regarded as a secondary mood disorder for many people who live with “high achieving” Asperger syndrome. The strain of managing Aspergers characteristics unsupported within society may prove overwhelming. It can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
“Sadly, many have not survived the experience — including Finn Higgins, who died February 11th 2008 at Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand aged 26 years.
“Finn is one of many young Asperger people whose early death has devastated their families and friends. Finnâ€™s death could have been avoided if he had he looked for more information and support from others. Sadly what probably proved fatal for Finn was the treatment he received from the Wellington mental health team managed by the Capital and Coast Health Board His story needs telling to prevent further deaths being caused through ignorance.”
Although I now appreciate that Finn showed early indications of Asperger syndrome it was never a problem in our family and Finn considered he had a happy childhood with education at Waldorf schools in England and New Zealand. However he went on to develop feelings of isolation in adolescence that culminated in a depression when he was 15 years old.
He coped with help from his family but silently suppressed the issues. For the next ten years he was employed in a variety of technically challenging IT projects where his ability and application were well-respected. Alongside work he funded and completed a drum course and moved on to self-employment as a music teacher.
He had a dynamic, creative musical career and two warm, loving relationships. In both IT work and music Finn was a, self-taught, accomplished performer. Sadly, beyond the interaction that both activities brought, he felt unable to connect with people around him. The pain that arose from that was a large element of Finn’s depression which he tried to keep at bay by immersing himself in his passion, music.
Around 2006 he identified his long-term depression with Asperger syndrome characteristics and feeling unable to communicate, co-operate or network, despaired of a future in music. Critical of his own abilities and constantly striving for perfection in his drumming he turned away from the creative work which had sustained him and went into a major depression in early 2007. Following that he spent many months supporting his partner through a breakdown.
On February 8th 2008, against his will, Finn came to the attention of mental health services in Wellington, New Zealand where he had been living since 2006.
He was prescribed Citalopram, an anti-depressant. Though its manufacturers warn there can be an initial deterioration and advise monitoring this was not mentioned to Finn or his partner. Within two days of starting the drug Finn’s anxiety and depression deteriorated to the extent that Wellington mental health team (CATT) considered he should enter temporary care for his own safety.
Finn refused and was adamant he needed to stay in his home to feel secure. He gave reassurances about his safety and requested help from his family. Contacted in England, I suggested an alternative to removing him by force . It involved phone support in his home for 48 hours until his sister Zoe could arrive in Wellington from England to help him. This option was rejected without consideration.
The sectioning was started but not completed. The CATT team then left Finn and his partner alone. Finn, distressed by the proposed action, fled and attempted to drown himself in Wellington harbour. Heavily stung by jellyfish, he returned home to his partner and exhausted slept for 3 hours. Although his partner contacted the Crisis team and told them Finn was home and willing to talk to CATT no assistance came.
When he awoke to again face the prospect of enforced sectioning and removal by police he ran to Mt Victoria and committed suicide. I was not aware of Finn’s identification with Asperger syndrome until after his death but Finn was quite open with his assessment of the origins of his depression to the Wellington mental health team.
Whilst self-diagnosis can be contentious, Finn neither sought nor welcomed the involvement of mental health services. When a self-diagnosed Asperger person first presents as a crisis case then their analysis should be respected. His health notes acknowledge he had informed them of Aspergers syndrome by noting â€˜self-diagnosis !â€˜ with an exclamation mark.
Although his notes go on to describe classic Asperger characteristics over the next few days there was no association, advice, assistance or treatment given in respect of Asperger syndrome. The Health team noted: – 1] Reluctance to have personal contact or interact with mental health team. 2] Limited eye contact and, obvious movement disorders. 3] Inability to project or consider future outcomes. 4] Refusal to contemplate respite care as he would be stressed by unfamiliar environments and people. 5] Rapid deterioration in his condition after starting Citalopram which was not monitored or noted. 6] Identification of his need to have his partner around to make him feel secure.
Relationship problems were assumed to be the cause of his depression and his behaviour towards his partner was wrongly identified (sadly a common , inaccurate assumption in Asperger relationships] as being manipulative and selfish. This undermined the support his partner was struggling to give and ultimately led to Finn feeling betrayed, another factor in his ending his life.
His last e-mail to me described the paranoia and mental confusion he experienced after starting Citalopram. Virtually every action of the Wellington mental health team intensified the pressures and despair that was crowding in on Finn. There seemed to be no knowledge of or sensitivity to Asperger issues.
Throughout his life I had supported Finn , often with considerable doubts, in his control of the issues that arose from undiagnosed Aspergers syndrome.
It gives me considerable personal pain that I was unable to help in his last request which was to stop the sectioning action which culminated in his death.
Reflecting on his life I know Finn was correct in identifying Asperger characteristics as the root of his depression. He described them as â€œblessing and a curseâ€. His partner described him as follows:
“He had different priorities to most people. Finding a post in life where he could be doing things of worth, such as making good music, or writing aesthetically ‘beautiful’ code was only second to keeping those he was loyal to, safe from harm. Knowledge, truth and perfection all came from code (ie writing computer programmes) and this would perhaps take priority over making dinner or having a shower, or even finding a job. His rationale would be that it would make him happy and he can’t do anything else if he’s not happy.
“He kept at least one difficult programming problem in his head, in case he was bored or upset and needed something calming to think about. Hence solving difficult logic problems made him relax and happy. If he became significantly mentally upset, it would affect him physically and he would shake or twitch uncontrollably.
“Finn valued being creative rather than cooperative. He was attentive to the details as well as the big picture . He wouldn’t want to make a judgement without getting all the perspectives you could possibly get on the topic. He has come across as confident and direct when it came to speaking about intellectual topics. He shied away from small talk and felt extremely awkward around it. In a way he felt safer in solitude as he found strangers to be irrational and therefore scary. This however gave him pain too, as he wanted to be able to connect with people easier. He just felt that when it came to social situations, he forced the group dynamic to freeze and there would always be a kind of awkward feeling between even the people he called friends for so many years.
“There were several examples of times when he had brought up topics that alienated the people around him, and he continued on – unable to recognise that he had lost the people he was talking to. He has never understood why it happens or how to change it, which is why he felt pain about never being able to be in a musical group/close social situations where you need to feel comfortable .
“Finn was overall unhappy with being stuck with a mind for logic, when he wanted a mind for creativity. In his logic world, he felt so far away from feeling human. He was a beautiful, intelligent, selfish, gentle, warm, indulgent, honest, entertaining, overly enthusiastic, amazing human being.”
FINNâ€™S PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF ASPERGERS
An email written a few weeks before his death:
I just read your post over at Humans about the issues you’ve been having with schooling . That set off a whole load of bells in my head, as I went through a whole load of chaos with school as a teenager. I was virtually absent from formal education from just before I turned thirteen until well after I turned eighteen.
There was never any medical involvement, but it’s definitely hard to read any accounts of living with AS without feeling a lot of overlap with the experiences I had with school and my early years of working. In terms of qualifications I have virtually nothing: I passed a GCSE in maths when I was 14, but basically all attempts at getting tutors involved and running formal home education ended quite badly.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn – but anything I did learn needed to be interesting to me and applicable to my own projects. I never went to university, although I do have a 1yr diploma from a music school that would qualify for entry in the UK with some fast talking.
If I’m going anywhere with this it’s to say that even the virtually complete rejection of formal education that I managed doesn’t need to be the end of the world. I had to deal with some serious anxiety and a few years of relatively crappy jobs when I started working, but I’m now 26 and have managed to work my way into a situation where I can go after jobs I care about and enjoy, and where I can apply myself and my skills to do things that have value to me.
I’m also comfortable enough socially that I have a wonderful partner who I love dearly, and who can put up with my occasional odd turns very sweetly and effectively. I wouldn’t claim that life is perfect or that I’d not have preferred things to have gone differently, but it’s all survivable and doesn’t have to go bad places.
My experience has been that generally life eases up on people with intellectual/practical skills and social difficulties as an adult Particularly if they’re good with computers or play the drums, two areas where being socially inept are practically badges of merit.
Anyway, let’s just say that being an exception isn’t all bad. It was no fun at the time for either myself or my mother, but I think I’ve come away from the experience with a degree of ability to guide my own learning that many people never get from years at school and university, and it’s actually become very valuable when it comes to being employed (and self-employed). It’s certainly left some scars, but they’re survivable ones.
I don’t know if any of that is helpful to read, but you seem to be doing all the right things in terms of being a caring parent from my perspective. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for you in the way you’ve taken your experiences and turned them into positive things like the Humans site.
All the best,