Background: Suicide prevention by mental health services requires an awareness of the antecedents of suicide amongst high risk groups such as psychiatric in-patients. The goal of this study was to describe the social and clinical characteristics of people who had absconded from an in-patient psychiatric ward prior to suicide, including aspects of the clinical care they received.
Methods: We carried out a national clinical survey based on a 10-year (1997-2006) sample of people in England and Wales who had died by suicide. Detailed data were collected on those who had been in contact with mental health services in the year before death.
Results: There were 1,851 cases of suicide by current psychiatric in-patients, 14% of all patient suicides. 1,292 (70%) occurred off the ward. Four hundred and sixty-nine of these patients died after absconding from the ward, representing 25% of all in-patient suicides and 38% of those that occurred off the ward. Absconding suicides were characterised by being young, unemployed and homeless compared to those who were off the ward with staff agreement. Schizophrenia was the most common diagnosis, and rates of previous violence and substance misuse were high. Absconders were proportionally more likely than in-patients on agreed leave to have been legally detained for treatment, non-compliant with medication, and to have died in the first week of admission. Whilst absconding patients were significantly more likely to have been under a high level of observation, clinicians reported more problems in observation due to either the ward design or other patients on the ward.
Conclusion: Measures that may prevent absconding and subsequent suicide amongst in-patients might include tighter control of ward exits, and more intensive observation of patients, particularly in the early days of admission. Improving the ward environment to provide a supportive and less intimidating experience may contribute to reduced risk.