Sunday, November 19, 2006

Government discovers Psychiatrists in Apathy about Patient Suicide

As Seen in this Australian Report

The [Queensland] State Government will consider new safety measures for psychiatric patients in care after a Coroner hit out at a "fatalistic professional attitude" to the risk of suicide.

Helen Jeffrey, 30, suffocated herself with a plastic bag provided by Nambour General Hospital staff on March 24 last year.

She had been admitted to the psychiatric intensive care unit after attempting suicide and became the second sectioned psychiatric patient in two years in Queensland to end her life using a plastic bag.

Maroochydore Coroner Ken Taylor last week made nine recommendations over Ms Jeffrey's death to Health Minister Stephen Robertson – expressing surprise that hospital staff had not identified plastic bags as a potential suicide aid.

"I have felt somewhat uneasy about what I shall, for the sake of convenience, term a fatalistic professional attitude towards suicide risk," Mr Taylor wrote.

A spokesman for Mr Robertson said the Minister was awaiting a copy of the recommendations which include a call to remove all objects "not uncommonly used as a means of suicide or attempted suicide".

Mr Taylor also recommended that Mr Robertson examine the feasibility of fitting remote pulse-monitoring wrist bands to all psychiatric patients held in state care.

Staff psychiatrist Keith Muir told the inquest that, in 35 years of clinical experience, he had never encountered such a death.

Asked by Mr Taylor if he was alarmed by the presence of plastic bags in psychiatric units, Dr Muir said: "Yes and no."

"The fact is that people who are determined to kill themselves . . . you know, that old expression, 'Where there is a will, there is a way'," Dr Muir said.

Mr Taylor said it was with a "considerable degree of incredulity" that he received the evidence that plastic bags had not been identified as a potential suicide aid before Ms Jeffrey's death.

Although Ms Jeffrey's family was entitled to be disappointed, the Coroner made no criticism of the standard of care.

"I am satisfied there was no wilful neglect," he said.

The Health Minister's office said plastic bags were already being removed "where ever practical" from psychiatric wards in line with precautions triggered by Ms Jeffrey's death.

But the spokesman said it would be difficult to eliminate their presence because plastic bags were necessary to line "communal" bins for potentially infectious or unhygienic waste.

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