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Wednesday, November 25, 1998 Published at 13:59 GMT


Hospital suicides spark call for care overhaul

Seven patients committed suicide at the Lister Hospital in just six months

A leading mental health charity has called for immediate government action to reduce the amount of suicides among the mentally ill.

The BBC's Emma Thwaites on the Lister hospital inquiry
The National Schizophrenia Fellowship (NSF) says an inquiry into the suicides of seven patients at a Hertfordshire hospital shows that urgent action is needed to improve staff morale, staff shortages and poor patient supervision on psychiatric wards.

It says its research shows a third of all suicides by the mentally ill take place in hospital.

The results of the inquiry were published on Wednesday.

Seven mental health patients committed suicide within six months at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage - three of them were inpatients.


The independent inquiry found poor physical conditions on the hospital's wards, communication problems between community and hospital workers, poor risk assessment practice, staff shortages and supervision problems.

The seven suicides included 26-year-old Kevin Olley who threw himself from the 10th floor of the hospital six months ago.

He had been left unsupervised for eight minutes.

[ image: Kevin Olley jumped off the 10th floor of the hospital]
Kevin Olley jumped off the 10th floor of the hospital
His mother Grace said hospital staff should have listened to her when she warned he was a suicide risk.

"They should listen more to relatives because Kevin was 26 and in 26 years I would have thought I knew him slightly better than they did," she said.

Another patient died after smuggling alcohol into the hospital despite a ban.

The report says this could have been avoided.

The hospital denies it failed to supervise patients properly.

Heather Lawrence, chief executive of the North Herts NHS Trust which runs the hospital, said: "Each patient is being assessed. Either they are being observed the whole time which can be distressing for them so we try to avoid it or they are monitored every 15 minutes or, if they are near discharge, they have a lot more freedom."

Patients near discharge have an agreement with a key worker on when they should be assessed, she added.

The hospital says staff conditions and training have improved in recent months, giving patients a better quality of life.

Chris Heginbotham of East Herts Health Authority said recruitment problems last year may have contributed to the problems, but he believed everything possible was being done to resolve this.

The report follows a similar inquiry into the suicides of five patients at nearby Queen Elizabeth hospital two months ago.

Lack of quality care

The government's Our Healthier Nation report calls for suicides among the severely mentally ill to be cut by 17% by the year 2010.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship (NSF) says lack of quality care, caused by the shutdown of many psychiatric hospitals and underfunding of the remaining ones, means that unnecessary suicides are still occurring.

[ image: Grace Olley says the hospital didn't listen to family warnings]
Grace Olley says the hospital didn't listen to family warnings
It says that on average two people with mental health problems commit suicide every day in the UK and that 10% of schizophrenics die as a result of suicide, compared to 1% of the general population.

However, a 1995 report by the NSF found the numbers are likely to be underestimated because of coroners' reluctance to categorise some deaths as suicides.

They tend to argue that the intentions of the dead person could not be clear because of their mental illness, says the NSF.

This is particularly true of deaths due to drowning and falling which are more likely to be used by women.

The NSF says the government's mental health strategy, to be announced in the next few weeks, needs to:

  • Help improve training for staff, particularly in risk assessment for hospital staff;
  • Reverse the cuts which it says are causing low staff morale;
  • Increase the involvement of carers, families and friends in care planning;
  • Set national standards for coroners in deciding how to classify suicides;
  • Invest to meet the government's suicide reduction targets:
  • boost community day care services.

The NSF says the mentally ill are not driven to suicide by voices in their heads, as is commonly assumed.

[ image: Heather Lawrence denies patients are not properly supervised]
Heather Lawrence denies patients are not properly supervised
"People with a severe mental illness are likely to commit suicide for similar reasons to everyone else - the collapse of personal relationships, the loss of a job or home and so on - all factors likely to be created by the mental illness itself," says an NSF spokesman.

The organisation believes suicides can be prevented if proper support is available, including safe accommodation, sheltered work opportunities and financial security.

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