Many deaths in mental health wards can be avoided

Results from our research provide clues for how to reduce deaths in mental health wards.

Our research team looked at how many people were dying on NSW mental health wards and what they were dying from.

We counted all the deaths in NSW mental health wards from 2002 to 2012. We found that there were 471 deaths during this time. About three quarters of these deaths were from physical health problems and a quarter were from suicide or accidents. We also found that about one in three deaths could have been avoided. Download the published paper.

Listen to Dr Pramudie Gunaratne talking about this research


What are avoidable deaths?

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare lists a number of causes of death that are considered potentially avoidable in a healthcare system that is working well. For example, deaths from suicides and accidents are considered avoidable. Deaths from medical conditions that are usually treatable are also considered avoidable.

Our research found that one in three deaths in mental health wards met the Institute’s criteria as potentially avoidable.

More attention should be paid to physical health

Our study also shows how important it is to look after people’s physical health on mental health wards, as well as their mental health.

We recommend that more needs to be done to improve physical health care for people with mental illness. This can be in the community, before people come onto mental health wards, but also while in hospital.

Monitoring is essential 

We also found that there was no monitoring of the number or causes of death on mental health wards in Australia. We created a data set to look into this, but that dataset only went up to 2012. So, we have no way to tell what has been happening in the last few years. We do not know if the death rates have gone up or down or stayed the same.  

We recommend that State governments should start monitoring deaths in mental health wards. Once we know how people are dying, then we can work to improve care, and hopefully prevent avoidable deaths. 

We want people with mental health issues to have the same standard of care as everybody else.  

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