Suicides by mental patients put at 160: Survey exposes gaps in care programme for schizophrenics

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 160 people who suffered from schizophrenia committed suicide in the past two years, according to new research which shows that they were failed by the Government's controversial policy of caring for mentally ill people in the community.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship survey exposes serious gaps in the provision and funding of care in psychiatric and acute hospitals and in the community, and at least pounds 500m extra money is needed to plug them, Martin Eede, the group's chief executive, said.

The findings will strengthen arguments that the community care policy is failing some of the most vulnerable members of society. The charity is also conducting research into homicides by former psychiatric patients and so far has traced more than 40 in the past two years, since the Government stepped up its hospital and bedclosure programme.

The fellowship monitored local newspapers in England for reported incidents of suicide and other preventable deaths between 1 April 1991 and 31 July 1993. The report names 124 male and 40 female schizophrenics who took their lives. Of the sample, 22 people died within a week of leaving hospital - 12 on the day they left - and a further 11 were not found for up to five days after dying. 'They had effectively slipped through the community care net,' the report said.

The survey detailed cases of suicides related to over-medication, in their homes or hostels, on the streets, in prison and in hospital. They include:

Marion Baker, who drowned herself in her bath three days after being discharged from a mental illness hospital in East Anglia. Her discharge into a flat had been supervised by the health and social services but the flat was very sparsely furnished. The consultant psychiatrist responsible for her care said that he would not have discharged her if he had known about the condition of the flat.

Abbot Shillingford threw himself under a London Underground train the day he was discharged from hospital. At the time he was on a waiting list to be transferred to a mental illness hospital in the London area. He had told staff that he wanted to kill himself and, in the past, had attempted to cut his throat. Despite warnings that he planned to jump in front of a Tube train his discharge went ahead.

The report concluded: 'Low morale in many partly-closed hospitals, under-funded community psychiatric services and over-subscribed new acute and secure units will adversely affect the care afforded sufferers.'

The report makes five recommendations: an immediate freeze on psychiatric hospital and bed closures; a guarantee of 52,000 high-staffed beds for continuing care; an extra pounds 500m a year for community care for the mentally ill; a community care ombudsman; and a legal requirement to provide a personal care programme with a named key worker.

Gary Hogman, who carried out the research, said: 'The findings do not leave much room for optimism with regard to the increasing speed of the closure of mental illness beds and the future of community care for the mentally ill. The gaps highlighted by this research must be filled with new funds for high-staffed beds, day care, employment opportunities and support for carers.' An analysis of telephone calls made to Saneline, a help line for schizophrenics and their families, showed that one in seven of all callers - estimated to be 7,200 in 1993 to date - wanted to discuss how to cope with suicidal thoughts.