Monday, March 22, 2010


Mental health act ensures families no longer in dark


March 22, 2010

MATTHEW MURPHY'S mind snapped 11 months too early.

Had the 41-year-old been able to endure the crippling depression that enveloped him for a while longer, the state's new Mental Health Act would have required hospital staff to tell his family what was happening with his care. It may have saved his life.

But when he was taken by police to the Mater Hospital in Newcastle early on December 3, 2006, after telling his father he planned to shoot himself, his family were kept in the dark.

Less than two hours after he left the hospital - against medical advice and with doctors failing to pass on any information to his deeply worried parents and wife - he killed himself.

On Friday the deputy state coroner Paul MacMahon, handed down his findings into Mr Murphy's death.

He reiterated the need for communication - between police, doctors and family members - and noted the eternal struggle between protecting a patient's right to privacy and keeping them alive.

Police training should emphasise that family members can provide important background information and police handover forms should include family or carer contact details, the coroner recommended.

''The existence of a plan by Mr Murphy to kill himself was important for diagnostic purposes and that information was not provided to the hospital by police,'' he noted. He was critical of the police for dissuading Pat Murphy, Matthew Murphy's father, from going to the hospital, saying: ''Had he been there he would have been a source of information for the doctors and a support to [his son].''

Mr MacMahon also recommended the Mater Hospital amend its suicide policy to suggest that information can be obtained from family or carers without the consent of the patient if ''there is a risk to the patient''.

At a broader level, he said, doctors working in emergency departments must be made aware of the provisions of the NSW Mental Health Act, which gives them the power to contact family members without the consent of the patient.

It is a change that has been a long time coming, said the head of Lifeline, Dawn O'Neil.

''Family members have been saying for a very long time that when somebody has a mental illness their capacity to make decisions about their own care can be impaired, and the family members, in order to look after them, need information,'' Ms O'Neil said.

''When someone is at risk of suicide we have to take that very, very seriously - that person needs to be in intensive care … for some period of time.''

Pat Murphy campaigned tirelessly for an inquest into his son's death and is pleased with the coroner's recommendations, but has vowed to continue his campaign until the changes are adopted.

''There is no requirement on the local police and the area health service to enact these changes, but we have spent all this time and effort to try to get change - I will be following this all the way through,'' he told the Herald yesterday.

A spokeswoman said Hunter New England Health Service welcomed the coroner's findings and is giving the recommendations careful consideration.

Lifeline: 131114