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OCTOBER 20, 2009 7:55PM
A PRISON pharmacist sent four reminders to have serial killer David Birnie’s antidepressant medication resumed in the weeks before he hanged himself.
Birnie and his wife Catherine were given life sentences for raping, torturing and murdering four women in Perth in 1986.
David Birnie was found hanging from an air conditioning vent in his protective custody cell at Perth’s Casuarina Prison on October 7, 2005.
In the three days before he died, Birnie did not receive his antidepressant medication, Avanza [mirtazapine], because the renewal authorisation form had not been sent through.
At a coronial inquiry into Birnie’s death, prison pharmacist John Harley said he sent reminders four times to the relevant health authorities that the approval for the medication was about to expire.
Despite not receiving a reply, Mr Harley continued providing the drug to Birnie, who had been taking it since 2002, for several weeks until just before his death.
“I didn’t want to stop it, he’d been taking it for some time,” Mr Harley said.
Birnie’s prison psychologist Sonia Gianatti yesterday told the inquiry the sudden stoppage of Birnie’s medication could have been the trigger that led to his suicide.
Today, Western Australia’s chief psychiatrist Dr Rowan Davidson said signs of withdrawal from Avanza usually started two to three days after it was stopped.
Dr Davidson said patients should be gradually eased off the drug with clinical monitoring, and that abrupt cessation, such as in Birnie’s case, would make suicidal thoughts more likely.
“It increases the likelihood that that was a significant contributor to his suicide,” he said.
Michael Jenkins, counsel for the Department of Corrective Services, said there had been a previous occasion when Birnie had not received Avanza for four days and there had been no apparent consequence.
Dr Davidson said this would “decrease the likelihood” that Birnie would suffer withdrawal symptoms during another similar period.
Mr Jenkins told the inquiry Birnie’s close prison friend, convicted multiple murderer William Mitchell, had not noticed any difference in Birnie’s behaviour or mood in the days before his death.
Asked what this indicated, Dr Davidson replied: “It would certainly suggest that the withdrawal state was not severe.”
The inquiry continues.