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New suicide at California mental hospital is eighth since federal investigation began

January 13, 2010 |  1:00 pm

A 50-year-old patient at the state mental hospital in San Bernardino has died after hanging himself in his bedroom, officials say, bringing the number of suicides at Patton State Hospital to eight since the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating violations of patients’ civil rights at California's mental hospitals in 2002.

The Jan. 4 hanging death of Marc Biron, described by a fellow patient as "friendly and kind to people," is the third since a consent judgment mandating a wide array of changes was imposed on the hospital in May 2006.

In a letter to state officials that laid out specific problems at Patton, federal civil rights attorneys noted that "of great concern is the high number of suicide attempts by hanging."

While the "vast majority" of suicide attempts at the facility involved hanging, the findings letter noted, the hospital failed to prevent future incidents of a similar nature because it "fails to respond effectively to identified trends."

California Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid said that staff had checked on Biron between 5:30 a.m. and 5:45 a.m. and that he was asleep. At 5:45 a.m. he was in the bathroom, and when the staff next checked him he was hanging from the wardrobe in the bedroom. The hospitals are working to get rid of the wardrobes, Kincaid said, as they have been identified as a suicide risk. 

A number of patients at Metropolitan State Hospital have hanged themselves from bedroom wardrobes. Kincaid said the hospitals have made progress in identifying and removing materials that can be used for suicides – such as foot lockers and curtain fixtures.

Patton's last suicide was one year ago, when Augie Solez hanged himself with a sheet from his bedroom door. The hinges have since been changed on the doors, Kincaid said, to avert hangings. Napa State Hospital, in Napa, which along with hospitals in Atascadero and Norwalk is also subject to the consent judgment, also lost a patient to suicide last month.

Data provided by the state Department of Mental Health show that there have been nine suicides and three homicides at the four hospitals since the consent judgment was imposed on them. In a similar period preceding the consent judgment, there were 14 suicides and three homicides.

Biron played guitar in a hospital band named "Barriers to Discharge," fellow patients said. They described him as respectful and kind with a good sense of humor.

Kincaid said that Patton State Hospital Executive Director Octavio "Carlos" Luna led a treatment group in which Biron participated and that Luna said there were no signs he was suicidal.

"The people in our care are the people who are the most ill," she said. "It is a great challenge when are dealing with someone who is focused on ending their own life. Trying to identify those individuals and head that off has been a real focus at the hospitals."

-- Lee Romney in San Francisco