Hospital let playwright repeat her suicide bid

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's brightest playwrights hanged herself in a hospital lavatory during 90 minutes when she was left unobserved despite psychiatrists' fears that she would commit suicide.

An inquest was told yesterday how Sarah Kane, the 28-year old author of a series of controversial plays, had tried to kill herself three days earlier and promised to try again. However, because of an apparent misunderstanding between hospital staff, she was left in a position to carry out her threat.

Ms Kane sprang to prominence in January 1995 with her first play, Blasted, which featured rape, buggery, mutilation and cannibalism. The play split the literary community, with some arguing they had found a brave new talent, and others describing her work as "a disgusting piece of filth".

In spite of her success, however, she suffered from depression and had received treatment as an in-patient and out-patient at the Maudsley Hospital in London. In the months leading up to her death, she had repeatedly seen her GP and been prescribed anti-depressants, which she apparently stockpiled.

In the early hours of 17 February, she took almost 200 pills and left a note for her friend, David Gibson, to find when he awoke, saying she had killed herself and asking him not to go into her room. Mr Gibson ignored her request and called for an ambulance, which took her for treatment at King's College Hospital, south London.

She was assessed there by Dr Nigel Tunstall, senior registrar in liaison psychiatry at the Maudsley, who said: "In terms of her intention, it was very clearly the case that she was intending to kill herself and she was surprised and upset that she had not succeeded.

"She said she had no intention of killing herself while she remained at King's College Hospital, but in abstract terms she said that at some point she would certainly kill herself."

Dr Tunstall was concerned for Ms Kane's safety and was anxious that she should be admitted to the Maudsley for treatment, either on a voluntary basis or against her will, on 20 February, the next day.

He told the inquest that he "took it as read" that she was being continually observed by nursing staff on the ward, but in his notes he said one-on- one care from a registered mental nurse was not necessary. Her ambivalence towards psychiatric treatment might have made such a gesture counter-productive.

He stressed, however, that she should be sectioned if she attempted to leave the ward alone. When she came on duty, the nurse in charge, Julie Forrester, understood that this was her biggest concern - to prevent Ms Kane from leaving. She said she did not believe she was supposed to keep the patient under constant supervision.

Some time after 2am, when she was last seen by nursing staff, Ms Kane crept out of her two-bedded room, went into the lavatory and hanged herself with a shoelace from a hook on the back of a cubicle door.

Returning a verdict of suicide, the Southwark coroner, Dr Selena Lynch, said: "Sarah was obviously a bright star burning brightly and, like so many with this kind of artistic talent she was plagued by mental anguish and tormented by thoughts of suicide."

Ms Kane's father Peter Kane, a former Daily Mirror journalist, later confirmed that he was considering taking legal action over his daughter's death.

He said after the inquest: "I'm not seeking financial compensation for the death of my daughter. I want answers as to why she wasn't given proper care in order that this doesn't happen to somebody else's daughter."