Retired teacher, 65, drowned in rain barrel after suffering from severe insomnia, hears an inquest

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A retired teacher drowned in a rain barrel in his garden after suffering from such severe insomnia that he became convinced he had a brain tumor, an inquest has heard.

Robert Steel, 65, was found face down in the four-foot-deep tank at the back of his £ 700,000 house in Downton, Wiltshire, last August, after months of struggling to sleep.

After he disappeared, an initial search by the police failed to find Mr. Steel, but his stepdaughter saw his feet sticking out of the top of the butt.

Today, a coroner learned that Mr. Steel – a Green Party candidate – had convinced himself that he was suffering from a number of conditions, including diabetes, coronavirus and brain cancer.

Robert Steel, 65, was found face down in the four-foot-deep tank at the back of his £ 700,000 house in Downton, Wiltshire, last August, after months of struggling to sleep.

Mr Steel stood for the Green Party in the 2017 Wiltshire Council election and was described by Party member Michael Pope as ‘a lovely guy – a great guy’ who was ‘a very active member of the Green Party’.

He had taught at Wallington Boys School, a gymnasium in London, for thirty years.

Today his wife Jacqueline Coussmaker in Swindon and Wiltshire Coroners Court in Salisbury said that after developing severe insomnia, her husband continued to self-diagnose and called an ambulance three times.

In a statement read by Area Coroner Ian Singleton, she said: ‘I met Robert 11 years ago and we moved to Downton five years ago. We were both retired teachers.

‘He was an extremely sociable person and an active cyclist. He was involved in local politics and environmental issues.

He developed insomnia in September October 2019. He went to the doctor who prescribed sleeping pills, but he didn’t want to become addicted to them and so didn’t want to take the full dose. ‘

She added that he became increasingly anxious, which was made worse by his internet use when “he searched the internet for insomnia, which led him to believe he had deadly insomnia.”

She told the court that ‘anxiety and stress made him mentally unwell’ and he began to diagnose himself with various conditions.

After he disappeared, an initial search by the police failed to find Mr. Steel, but his stepdaughter saw his feet sticking out of the top of the butt.  Pictured: Mr. Steel's house

After he disappeared, an initial search by the police failed to find Mr. Steel, but his stepdaughter saw his feet sticking out of the top of the butt. Pictured: Mr. Steel’s house

She said, “He called an ambulance at least three times. Doctors couldn’t find a problem.

Three months before he died, he changed doctors. They saw him as a hypochondriac because he was always in touch with them.

He read that sleep deprivation can cause diabetes. His fear of diabetes led him to lose a stone and a half in a few weeks, partly because he cuts carbohydrates almost completely from his diet.

“Robert’s behavior became more and more irrational.”

He even had a CT scan to test for a brain tumor he was convinced he had and asked to be sent to a stroke clinic in case he had a TIA [a transient ischaemic attack or ‘mini stroke’] even though doctors found no evidence of this.

On the way back from a doctor’s appointment, Ms. Coussmaker said her husband applied hand gel constantly because he was “sure he’d picked up the coronavirus.”

Today his wife Jacqueline Coussmaker in Swindon and Wiltshire Coroners Court (pictured) in Salisbury said that after developing severe insomnia, her husband continued to self-diagnose and called an ambulance three times.

Today his wife Jacqueline Coussmaker in Swindon and Wiltshire Coroners Court (pictured) in Salisbury said that after developing severe insomnia, her husband continued to self-diagnose and called an ambulance three times.

She described how she reported her husband missing on August 11 last year at around 8 a.m. after last seeing him in their yard.

Police searched the house and garden but could not find him. It wasn’t until Lucie Coussmaker, Robert’s stepdaughter, traveled from London to support her mother that he was found in the rain barrel.

She noticed his shoes sticking out of the tank and found him inside, face down, head forward, completely submerged in the water.

His stepdaughter described him as “very outgoing and active,” but knew he was “not sleeping well.”

She said, “He seemed preoccupied with sleep deprivation. He did CBT online and paid for an online therapist dealing with sleep problems. ‘

In a post-mortem investigation, Mr. Steel’s cause of death was determined to be drowning.

In a statement read by the medical examiner, Dr. Paul Borrelli, who had treated Mr. Steel at Downton Surgery since April 2020, told the inquest that he had been given medication for anxiety and insomnia.

He explained that Mr. Steel was not fully cooperating with psychiatric services because “he wanted to be examined for a physical problem.”

Ms. Coussmaker told the hearing, “I feel disappointed by Downton Surgery, I feel like they didn’t take his condition seriously and saw him as a hypochondriac.”

The inquest was postponed to a later date so that Dr. Borrelli could appear as a living witness.

For confidential support, call Samaritans on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org

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