A consultant psychiatrist has confirmed there is an accepted lack of resources at hospital mental health units, telling a coroner’s inquiry they "grapple" with the issue every day.
It's the first day of the coronial inquest into the death of Samuel Fischer, who died of suspected suicide in a Wellington mental health unit in April 2015.
During cross examination at today's inquest, the psychiatrist tasked with overseeing the mental health, addiction and intellectual disability services of three lower North Island district health boards admitted staff resources are always thin.
The psychiatrist, who has name suppression, told the court that prioritisation of resources at inpatient services is something they "grapple with every day" in New Zealand and agreed it would not be unusual for facilities available to inpatients to be restricted due to a lack of available staff.
She confirmed a nurse on staff at the ward made the decision not to increase the level of observation of Mr Fischer on the day he died.
She said she was not aware of the number of personnel on that day, however it wasn’t lower than normal. But she confirmed that they normally operate at a thin level of staffing due to an accepted lack of resources.
Samuel Fischer had an extensive history of mental health, dating back to 1995, including bipolar effective disorder, including attempting self-harm on multiple reported occasions.
His mother, Lyn Copeland, says she’s devastated more care wasn’t taken in protecting her son.
Mrs Copland’s lawyer, Letizia Ord, raised concerns that the number of observations, or check-ups, was not increased on the day Mr Fischer died despite him displaying self-harm behaviour and speaking to a nurse about his unhappiness in their care.
Ms Ord suggested the low staff levels meant inpatients in Wellington Hospital were unable to use facilities like the music room, the prayer hall or the gym.
Mr Fischer was a keen musician and she said this may have contributed to his unhappiness at the unit.
The court also heard from the police, who confirmed to the court the timeline of Mr Fischer’s death.
Detective Sergeant Terry Fraser said 40 minutes passed between visits by the nurse to room 12 of the secure facility where Mr Fischer was being held at the time of his death.
It was on the nurse’s return that she found Mr Fischer, who was immediately transferred to hospital.
It was three days before he died, on 20 April 2015.
The coroner’s inquest into his death continues until the end of the week.