Suicide risks allowed to keep belts at Woodlands

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TWO psychiatric patients who killed themselves at the Woodlands mental health unit did not have their belts confiscated despite being classed as suicide risks.

Both Police Sergeant Richard Bexhell, 49, and John Blair, 40, used their belts to hang themselves at the psychiatric hospital on The Ridge and a serious case review (SCR) into their deaths has highlighted “procedural failings” in their care.

Sgt Bexhell died in August 2009 after he hanged himself at the Sussex Partnership NHS Trust run psychiatric unit on The Ridge, and just seven weeks later Mr Blair killed himself in a similar way. Their deaths - along with that of Susannah Anley who suffocated at Woodlands in 2008 - were investigated by Sussex Police who decided not to bring any charges. Woodlands was closed after Mr Blair’s death in October 2009, and reopened last summer after a root-and branch review of its facilities and care policies.

The SCR reveals that on admission, Sgt Bexhell was assessed to be a medium suicide risk and Mr Blair was deemed to be a high risk. But the report states: “In both cases there were weaknesses in the completion of these (assessments) and in their translation into care plans for both men in terms of the level of risk identified.”

Both were put on 15-minute suicide watch, but the report said in Mr Blair’s case that was “inconsistent” with the risk level identified. And it goes on to question why neither man’s belt was removed, even though Sgt Bexhell had his mobile phone charger taken away.

Paul Sankey, a solicitor with Russell Jones & Walker, who is representing all three families, was staggered by the revelation. He said: “The belt issue is absolutely key. You do not need to be a consultant psychiatrist to know that if people want to do themselves harm then a belt is going to be a risk. It’s a very basic error that has been made in both cases.

“I did speak with Mr Blair’s parents and they are particularly devastated knowing the trust did not learn from what happened to Richard Bexhell,” he added.

A spokesman for the trust said it had cooperated fully with the SCR and insisted: “The cases, which occurred some years ago, have already been subject to an internal review and robust action plan.

“We firmly believe that we have made significant progress.”

On the question of why both men were allowed to keep their belts the spokesman added: “At the time of these tragic incidents, the decision on whether to remove belts from patients admitted to our inpatient units was determined by a risk assessment for each individual.

“As a result of the two deaths on one unit, both of which involved the use of belts as ligatures, we took a trust wide decision to remove all belts across our acute inpatient wards.”

The inquests into the deaths of Mr Blair and Sgt Bexhell are due to take place later this year.