- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

RICHMOND A woman hanged herself and a man suffered a fractured skull and hip when attacked by another patient in unrelated events at Western State Hospital in Staunton.
"We have information on both incidents, and we are following them," said Heidi Lawyer, acting director of the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, a state watchdog agency for the disabled.
The state mental health department confirmed last week that a 45-year-old woman hanged herself in her room last Tuesday, apparently by tying a towel to a door hinge.
She had been transferred to Western State from the Fairfax County jail Nov. 1, department spokesman Martha Mead said.
"She was found in her room," Miss Mead said. "The rescue squad was called, but she died on her way to the hospital."
The woman was not on a suicide watch because she had given no indications she might kill herself, Miss Mead said. She had been checked 10 to 15 minutes before she was found.
A suicide is "always a tragedy for the hospital staff and the family. We certainly send our condolences to the family," Miss Mead said.
The mental health agency is investigating the death. Miss Mead declined to release the woman's name because of confidentiality rules.
A patient in Western State's forensic unit, which houses those charged with a crime or found not guilty by reason of insanity, suffered a fractured skull, broken hip and fractured wrist when he was attacked by another patient Oct. 24, Miss Mead said.
The two patients were standing in a line to receive medication when one of them started arguing with a nurse, Miss Mead said. The second patient intervened but was punched by the first patient and fell against the wall. The first patient then kicked the man, breaking his wrist, hip and skull.
"It was very serious," Miss Mead said, adding that the man was treated at the Augusta Medical Center but is now back at Western State.
The attacker will not be charged because he is "extremely ill," Miss Mead said.
The death and beating occurred several months after Western State passed an inspection by the U.S. Justice Department, though the federal agency's four-year investigation of the hospital is ongoing.
The Justice Department chronicled a series of patient care violations at Western State, including deaths and excessive use of seclusion and physical restraints.
The investigation also found that inaccurate or inadequate diagnoses and treatment led to needless medications, and in one case, the death of patient Maura Patten in 1997.
Valerie L. Marsh, one of the state's most vocal advocates for the mentally ill, said she was not surprised by the death and beating at Western State.
"The mental health system is in total crisis," said Miss Marsh. "Public hospitals are a barometer of the problem."
There are not enough state beds for people with severe mental illness, she said, and public mental health resources at the local level are inadequate, problems worsened by the state's huge revenue shortfall.
"We have a system that forces people to get sick, that forces them to get suicidal," said Miss Marsh, director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
Western State, with about 420 patients, is one of Virginia's three major state-run psychiatric hospitals.


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