Suicides Shut VA Psychiatric Ward

Dallas VA Medical Center - North Texas Health Care System
Dept. of Veterans Affairs
A fourth suicide among mentally ill patients treated at the Dallas VA Medical Center this year has led the hospital to close its psychiatric ward, and investigators from the national Veterans Affairs office are expected to arrive next week to assess safety.

This comes on the heels of an exclusive CBS News investigation that revealed 1,758 VA patients killed themselves in 2005. That number rose from 1,403 VA patient suicides in 2001.

Joseph Dalpiaz, director of the VA North Texas Health Care System, ordered the shutdown after a 44-year-old man hanged himself April 4. The hospital stopped admitting patients to its 51-bed psychiatric unit the next day.

Dalpiaz "decided he wanted to ... give us some time to assess the environment of care and make sure things were as safe as possible in our patient unit," said Dr. Catherine Orsak, head of mental health for the VA's North Texas health system.

Three other suicides have also raised alarm. In January, two men who met in the hospital's psychiatric ward committed suicide days after being released.

On Feb. 5, a 55-year-old mental health patient also took his own life while staying in the same unit. The Associated Press reported the veteran who committed suicide on this day hanged himself on a frame attached to his wheelchair.

In a statement to CBS News, VA spokesperson Phil Budahn said the "VA remains committed to ensuring its patients receive top quality care." Any veterans who need "inpatient mental health care will be referred to VA facilities in Waco and Temple [or] non VA facilities in the Dallas Fort Worth area."

Last November, CBS News broke the story of the staggering number of veterans who commit suicide. The report was the result of a five-month investigation into veteran suicides.

The results were startling: according to data from 45 states, 6,256 men and women who had served in the armed forces took their own lives in 2005 - that's 120 suicides every week. Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian and his investigative team found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide that year than non-veterans.

Read the original investigation: Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans
Follow up: VA Struggles With Vets' Mental Health.
How we got the numbers behind the story.
VA Doctor on Veteran Suicides.
Congress Looks at Veteran Suicides.
Read our viewers' feedback after the investigation.

The safety of the Dallas psychiatric ward is to be assessed by investigators visiting from the national VA offices, The Dallas Morning News reported in its Tuesday editions. Doctors sent patient records and other documents to Washington last week for review.

Orsak said the hospital has spent more than $250,000 the past six months to eliminate suicide risks. Door knobs were replaced, showers curtains and plumbing were retrofitted, and light fixtures were modified to remove rigid outcroppings veterans might use in hanging themselves.

While new patients are not being admitted to the hospital's psychiatric unit, 10 veterans are still being treated there. Orsak said the hospital has increased staffing and checks to ensure their safety.

Shirley Bemps, who said her husband committed suicide in the psychiatric ward in February, said she blames doctors for her husband's death.

"If he was a high-risk patient like they said, he should have been watched and monitored," Bemps said. "They haven't called me to offer condolences. They won't even respond to me. I just feel cheated."

Orsak said she did not know when the psychiatric unit would reopen to new patients. In the meantime, she said mentally ill veterans would be treated at VA hospitals in Waco and Temple and nearby private treatment centers.

Additional reporting by Pia Malbran.