When Mary Pershall first answered the phone call from the police officer she braced herself for the news she had always feared – that her daughter was dead.
Instead, shock fell over her when the officer gently told her that her youngest child, Anna Horneshaw, who was four months pregnant at the time, had done something unbelievably horrific.
The 27-year-old had fatally stabbed her housemate, an older male, during a fight.
“It was shocking,” Mary said of the call six years ago in 2015.
“We have had to somehow deal with the unthinkable – that our sweet and cherished little girl who literally would not hurt a fly committed murder.”
Anna went on to plead guilty to murder and was sentenced to 17 years behind bars for the brutal crime in Melbourne’s north.
Sadly, Mary said she was grateful her own child was sent to jail because she was finally able to get the help she so desperately needed.
It was in jail that Anna was first diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality traits.
She was also able to get medication, structure, regular meals and therapy.
This was something Anna’s parents and sister had tried to get for years as her behaviour spiralled out of control.
It started with her abusing drugs and alcohol after she finished her degree when she was in her twenties.
Then she would meet strange men on trains and go home with them.
She could disappear for days or weeks at a time.
When she got home she’d be covered with bruises. Once she had cigarette burns on her body.
Sometimes Anna would hurt herself or threaten suicide.
There would be periods when she wouldn’t move from her bed.
Then, she’d spend days awake and afraid.
“We were so exhausted. It was like trying to take care of a newborn baby,” Mary said.
She said they were also becoming frightened of her.
In one shocking incident Anna’s father was forced to wrestle a knife away from his daughter during a fight.
Police were called and took her to a hospital emergency ward.
Her parents hoped it would finally mean she would be admitted to a mental health ward.
Instead Anna spent a day in hospital before the specialist nurse decided it wasn’t going to happen.
It was a devastating blow.
“There needs to be some kind of capacity for people to be held against their will,” Mary said.
If that had happened with her daughter, the tragic events that took place afterwards may have been avoided.
ISSUES IN THE MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM
Forensic psychiatrist Dr Rajan Darjee understands Mary’s frustrations with the mental health system well.
For the past 20 years in Australia and the UK, he has worked to assess and manage the risk of offenders with mental illness in prisons, secure hospitals and the community.
The psychiatrist has also appeared as an expert in court in some of the most high-profile murder cases in Victoria.
He gave evidence in the tragic case of Henry Hammond, who was in the grips of a schizophrenic delusion when he bludgeoned Courtney Herron to death with a tree branch in a public park in May 2019.
Mr Hammond was found not guilty of murder by reason of mental impairment.
Dr Darjee said he believed people with severe mental illnesses who were admitted to hospital often didn’t get to stay long enough to get better.
“There is an emphasis on short admissions to hospital … 10 days is not enough to make someone better,” he said.
But he said it was also difficult to get someone into a ward when there was a lack of beds.
There was also a reluctance to use compulsory measures to keep someone in hospital – despite it sometimes being the only way they could get help.
Figures from an ombudsman report in 2015 into Victoria’s prison population found more than three quarters of the male and female prisoners had substance abuse issues and 40 per cent had mental health issues.
Dr Darjee said people who committed violent offences while in the grips of a severe psychiatric illness should be in a secure hospital and not jail.
He said people who received good care and treatment in the forensic mental health system had low reoffending rates.
Tania Wolff is the director of a legal practice that works within a St Kilda mental health and addiction clinic.
The majority of her clients struggle with their psychiatric state or with substance abuse.
Most are charged with shoplifting, common assault and low-level drug or alcohol related incidents.
If the legal system is to be a just one, you can’t treat someone with a mental impairment in the same way as someone who does not have one, Ms Wolff said.
She said people needed to understand the way a person’s illness impacted and continued to impact them – and how it was linked to the crimes they committed.
“Rather than criminal masterminds in our prisons and filling our courts … figures show that our prisons and courts are filled with those who are actually more in need of support to help address and overcome inequities and issues in their backgrounds, health, life and their opportunities than anything else,” she said.
MOTHER’S PLEA FOR CHANGE
Before Anna carried out the horrific murder using a kitchen knife on her housemate, her violence had been escalating.
Another housemate called police repeatedly because of her outbursts and also once for attacking him.
Anna was afraid too and had told others she needed to be “contained”.
“Police were called and each time it was treated as a totally isolated incident,” Mary said.
Mary said there needed to be a more holistic approach to treatment.
She said she wanted to see the system change with better community-based options, crisis housing and a way to log mental health incidents, particularly if police were called.
“They need to build a story up for people … for Anna she was becoming increasingly violent,” Mary said.
Mary said she believed too many families in the system were “treated like a nuisance” instead of being part of a possible solution in the lives of their loved ones.
But she is hopeful for the future.
Anna has been improving in prison. Her young son is living with a relative and he sees his mum regularly.
“When she was little she had this shiny little spirit, this shiny little soul,” Mary said.
“That has come back in an environment where she’s cared for.
“It’s a lovely thing to see.”