How the system failed

By Jamie Berry
December 4, 2004

Not a day goes by that Mark Patten's daughter, Jenna, 3, does not ask about her dad. Patten, 27, an electrician, hanged himself in the backyard of his Kew home in March last year.

"(She) absolutely idolises him," said Mark's mother, Janet Fenech. "She says on a constant basis: 'I miss my daddy'. And it could have been avoided."

Patten was taking a variety of anti-depressants. He had spoken of suicide but he also craved help.

On March 6, the night before his death, his mother tried to get him admitted for treatment at St Vincent's Hospital. A psychiatrist had also written to the hospital requesting Mr Patten's admission.

But as coroner Heather Spooner yesterday found: "Unfortunately, it appears that the system failed Mr Patten . . . Had he been better assessed and even admitted to hospital on March 6 then his tragic death on the following day may have been prevented."

Psychiatrist Paul Wendiggensen told the inquest he had ceased being Mr Patten's psychiatrist in late February, after failing to get him into the hospital. He accused the crisis and treatment (CAT) teams of "blocking" beds in public hospitals and said Mr Patten was "a high suicide risk" who needed inpatient care.

On March 4, a registrar at St Vincent's saw Mr Patten. The registrar noted that Mr Patten had no immediate thoughts of suicide. But two days later, Mrs Fenech called the hospital as her son's condition seemed to be worsening.

Mrs Fenech said: "I spoke to a psychiatric triage nurse and said that I wanted to send him in by ambulance. The nurse told me he was not on the critical list and she could not help me." The next day Mrs Fenech went to an appointment with the psychiatric registrar. She was told her son had killed himself that day.

"Mark was turned away, despite his and our plea for help, along with verbal and written urgent requests for admission from a senior psychiatrist," she said.

Among her recommendations, Ms Spooner called for a review of the CAT system for assessing and admitting psychiatric patients. She said the hospital "largely conceded" the issues. Mrs Fenech's lawyer, Kathryn Booth, confirmed that her client would be suing the hospital for damages.

A hospital spokesman, Mike Griffin, said the hospital had conducted "an extensive investigation" after Mr Patten's death. "Following that, several actions have been taken that are incorporated into the coroner's decision," he said.

Mrs Fenech said all her son had wanted was to be heard. "The pain that is left behind through a needless death... is catastrophic," she said.

People needing help can call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.