Fourth investigation into twin tragedies in Cairns
THE Far North's mental health system will come under scrutiny for the fourth time in six years when a coroner examines how two suicidal inpatients managed to flee Cairns Base Hospital and take their own lives.
Maryellen Black was found dead at the Cairns Showground after absconding from the hospital's mental health unit on March 24, 2008, and Johnathan Saccu died in similar circumstances on January 20, 2010.
The inquests into their deaths, to be heard before coroner Kevin Priestly in August, come after five suicides were the subject of inquiries between 2006 and 2008, resulting in scathing reports into the Far North's mental health system.
Far Northern coroner Kevin Priestly will preside over the latest investigation, and during pre-inquest hearings in Cairns this week he said a key focus would be finding out how patients were monitored at the facility.
Mrs Black's husband, Michael Black, said it was an issue he too wanted to see addressed before the end of the inquest.
"It just didn't seem adequate while I was visiting," he said.
"They (staff) never asked questions, you could just walk in and walk out.
"You couldn't tell who was a visitor and who was a patient … (there) was a lack of security."
Mrs Black, 52, was taken by ambulance from Innisfail Hospital to Cairns on March 11, 2008, with severe depression and was assessed as being a "high risk of suicide … and absconding", the court heard.
The solicitor assisting the coroner, Stephanie Williams, said Mrs Black was being cared for in the emergency department the next day when she absconded a first time, but was returned later that evening by police.
After being admitted to the mental health unit, a nurse assessed Mrs Black as being at high risk of suicide and self harm and told doctors she had "plans of hanging herself".
But a doctor reviewed the woman and said she was "not an acute risk of self harm" and should be monitored at 15-minute intervals in the ward, the court heard.
By 3.30pm that day, nurses noticed Mrs Black was gone.
She was found dead less than 24 hours later.
Mr Saccu's body was discovered on railway lines near Cairns after he absconded from the unit and was struck by a train, the court heard.
Mr Priestly said both suicides "gave rise to a question of adequacy of risk controls".
"One interest of mine is how movement of people is monitored … and how you strike a balance (between) the different risk levels there," he said.
Cairns Base Hospital's most senior mental health staff will give evidence at each inquest, which will culminate in a final day of evidence tying common issues in each investigation together.
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Flashback: An article in The Cairns Post on previous investigation into the suicide of an inpatient at Cairns Base Hospital.