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St. Joe's investigating 'extremely unusual' number of suicides at West 5th campus

Three people killed themselves while they were patients at St. Joseph's West 5th campus, the region's specialized mental health hospital, in 2016. Now the hospital has hired outside help to investigate.

'He went there with the idea in his mind that he was going to get some help for himself': Father

The hospital has hired two independent experts to help it review its handling of cases where suicide is a risk. (Dave Beatty/CBC)

Three people killed themselves while they were patients at St. Joseph's West 5th campus, the region's specialized mental health hospital, in 2016.

The  "extremely unusual" number has prompted the hospital to hire a pair of independent outside experts to investigate its entire approach to suicide risk cases.

Their probe will be in addition to an internal review and to the mandatory investigation by the provincial coroner's office.

In a lockdown facility where there are supposed to be professionals doing their job and watching these people, how can it happen?- Carl Verge

"Whenever you see something that is unusual, I think it behooves us to take a deeper dive into this to make sure that we're doing everything we can do," Dr. Ian Preyra, deputy chief of staff at St. Joe's told CBC News.

Preyra said a typical year at West 5th may include no suicides, or possibly one. But three is "extremely unusual."

The most recent case is that of Joel Verge, a 42-year-old man who died in early November.

Joel Verge died on Nov. 9. (LifeNews.ca)
Verge's family is still reeling from his death, said his dad, Carl Verge. 

And it carries extra weight for the family; his nephew killed himself while he was a patient at West 5th four years ago.

Carl Verge said his son checked himself in to St. Joe's in late October to get some help for substance abuse and bipolar disorder.

Then he attempted suicide and ended up in intensive care. After he was sent back to West 5th, he ran away from the facility overnight in early November.

A few days later ,after he turned himself back in, he killed himself.

Carl Verge said he can't get his head around how that was possible at a facility specializing in mental health cases.

"He went there with the idea in his mind that he was going to get some help for himself," Carl Verge said. "And this is how it turned out."

Death sparks investigation

The Ontario coroner is investigating the death, as is required when someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly in hospital. It's unknown at this time whether a full inquest will be called, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner.

And in addition to cooperating with that investigation, and the internal review, the hospital has brought in two experts – a senior coroner unrelated to the province's review and a suicide specialist – to look into the three deaths at the West 5th campus this year.

This is the work that we've chosen to take on and it's very personal to all of us in the organization.- Dr. Ian Preyra, St. Joe's deputy chief of staff

"What we have commissioned them to do is to come on site and do essentially an investigation for us, an evaluation, of all our practices around suicide prevention," Preyra said. "Not just relating to the case of Mr. Verge. But all the cases in the program and how we approach people with suicide assessment."

That review is expected to be wrapped up in January or February.

The hospital has already made some changes in light of the internal review's recommendations, Preyra said. He said those couldn't be disclosed publicly as they may be part of the coroner's investigation.

"Events like the event that happened to the Verge family are heart-breaking to us," Preyra said. "This is the work that we've chosen to take on and it's very personal to all of us in the organization."

'How many others are there?'

Carl Verge wants his son's story to spark change.

Especially because it's not the first time someone he loves has killed himself while a patient at West 5th.

His nephew died in 2013 after he left the West 5th campus when he was let out to go for a smoke. He'd written online two days earlier that he was planning to do just that.

"We're trying to figure out what we are going to do to shine a light on this so that no other families have to go through this," Carl Verge said.

"This is a lockdown facility. These people are deemed a danger to themselves or a danger to others. How can something like this happen?" he said.

The family of Joel Verge hope the investigations prompt changes. (Dave Beatty/CBC)

"In a lockdown facility where there are supposed to be professionals doing their job and watching these people, how can it happen?"

The grieving father said he knows many people have very difficult mental health challenges, and suicide may be "an eventuality for a lot of people."

But it shouldn't happen when they're checked in to the region's most secure mental health facility, he said.

"When you're in a facility like that, it should never happen there. Or if it does, it should be a rare occurrence," Carol Verge said.

"But it seems that it's happened there quite a few times. If my own personal life can tell you of two instances in three or four years, how many others are there?"

Joel left behind three children, a grandson and a granddaughter expected to be born any day.

'The sickest mental health patients in the region'

Preyra said the investigations are important to St. Joe's.

"We are in the business of taking care of the sickest mental health patients in the region," he said.

"And when we have a tragedy like [Verge's death], it hits us all very hard and we feel a great deal of empathy and compassion for the family.

"And that really drives us to move forward to try and prevent incidents like this in the future."

That surprises the Verges, who say they haven't heard anything from the West 5th staff. They said they have felt left in the dark since Joel died.

But they have been encouraged to hear this week from a coroner working on Joel's case.

He called on Thursday and told Joel's stepmother, Jane Verge, that he'd noticed the other deaths at the hospital, Jane Verge said.

"He said, 'Merry Christmas – I'm going to get you some resolution on this,'" she said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

With files from Jenn Blair