Families condemn 'hotel' hospital over psychiatric patients' suicide pact deaths

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The families of two psychiatric patients who fell to their deaths in an apparent suicide pact launched scathing attacks on their hospital care yesterday.

Anne Harris, 29, who had three daughters, walked out of the Devon hospital with Jamie Hague and Shaun Sheppard and took a taxi to cliff tops where all three plunged to their deaths. Yesterday her husband, Michael, described the unit as a "hotel", where - his wife claimed - drug dealers sold drugs through the window.

Despite repeated suicide attempts, she had been allowed enough freedom to disappear into Exeter on shoplifting sprees. But he had been refused information about her treatment, at her own request, when she started a sexual relationship with another patient.

Meanwhile, Jamie Hague's mother, Anne Richards, explained she had known her son had made a suicide pact and begged the unit to stop him leaving the grounds just hours before he did. She insisted her son, 19, from Cullompton, had been allowed to keep a noose and razor blades in the room he shared with Shaun, 17, from Upton Pyne.

The pair were speaking on the opening day of the inquest into the deaths.

East Devon coroner's court was told that Mrs Harris and the two teenagers, who had both been drinking alcohol, walked out of Cedars Unit in Wonford House Hospital, Exeter, where they were informal patients, on 12 June 2002. A few hours later they were spotted on Salcombe Hill cliffs in Sidmouth, on the south coast of Devon, but police were unable to talk them down.

Dr Elizabeth Earland, the coroner, said it appeared from inquiries made later that the three had made a suicide pact.

Mr Harris, 39, a teacher from Tiverton who was left to raise their daughters, aged three to 11, said that his wife had made at least three previous suicide attempts and researched the subject on the internet.

He told the court that in the five months his wife was being treated at the unit, her condition had deteriorated and she had "lurched from one crisis to another. She had never harmed herself during our 12-year relationship until she went into the unit.

On one occasion her arm was latticed with cuts which particularly upset my oldest daughter," he said.

Just a week before her death, Mrs Harris had been talked down from the same cliff where she eventually died. Although the hospital did not tell her husband, she admitted it to him, explaining she could not do it alone. It was only after her death that he learnt from files that four months earlier she had threatened to jump off a cliff with two of their children.

Mr Harris attacked the Exeter unit for failing its vulnerable patients, adding that he had been concerned about an apparent lack of security.

"The place was run like a hotel. Patients came and went as they pleased. The majority of staff appeared to be very laid back and Anne told me she was playing the system and telling the staff what they wanted to hear so she could get more freedom.

"This meant that she could mix with the male patients and she talked of drinking and taking drugs with male patients and drug dealers hanging around the ward," he said.

Mrs Richards, a health worker, told the coroner through a statement that she had felt "helpless and frustrated" when she learnt from a former patient that her son, Jamie, had made a suicide pact.

"I begged the staff to section him [under the Mental Health Act] as they had several weeks earlier. I knew it was possible. I told them his level had to be changed but I had no feedback," she said.

"I have been left devastated by Jamie's death and in total disbelief about what happened. I feel more should have been done."

All three patients died from multiple injuries and had superficial self-harm wounds, Dr Alan Anscombe, the pathologist, reported.

The inquest is due to last six weeks and will hear from more than 70 witnesses.

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