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Inquests ordered in deaths of psychiatric patients

Inquests must be held in the deaths of two patients who died while under restraint at a psychiatric hospital, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has ruled.

Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Barry McLellan, is studying the ruling to see whether it should apply to all people who die while in the care of a mental hospital. McLellan has said that such mandatory inquests are unnecessary and would be too expensive.

However, the commission ruled Thursday that it is discriminatory to require mandatory inquests in the deaths of prison inmates, but not for patients held in psychiatric hospitals.

The families of two patients who died in Ontario psychiatric hospitals raised the issue after their request for inquests were denied.

"When you see notations in a medical record [that] somebody was sleeping till 7:30 in the morning, when they died at 6:47 in the morning, and that notation is crossed out in the medical record — to me this raises many questions to a family who wants answers," said Robert Illingworth, whose brother Thomas died while under the supervision of doctors and nurses.

Susan Fraser, a lawyer involved in the case, said the decision is important for all families who are touched by psychiatric illnesses.

"The coroner now has to adopt a policy that inquests into the deaths of psychiatric patients will be mandatory because they are entitled to the same protections as other persons in custody," Fraser said.

"For people who do not understand what a psychiatric facility is like," she added, "the door is locked when you are made a patient, which makes you vulnerable. Visitors may be limited. Access to fresh air and exercise are all limited, and it's the public's responsibility to ensure that what happens behind the walls of a psychiatric facility can be open for public scrutiny."

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