BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- A patient in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka has jumped from the fifth floor of a hospital building, making it the sixth suicide at the facility this year.
With most of the patients jumping from floors where the hospital’s COVID-19 wards were situated, the multiple suicides have shone a spotlight on the possible mental-health crises faced by coronavirus patients in Bosnia, where the death toll from the pandemic is steadily rising.
Renata Tamburic, the head of the COVID-19 department at the University Clinical Center of Republika Srpska (UCCRS) in Banja Luka, the largest city in the Serb-dominated part of the Balkan nation, said that the latest patient to take their own life was seriously ill with late-stage cancer and also suffering from pneumonia due to the coronavirus.
Tamburic said that the patient's health deteriorated during the night of October 3-4 "and that the unpleasant event happened from a room used by the staff, in which the windows were not protected."
The recent death was the hospital's second suicide in as many weeks and the sixth this year. In five of the incidents, people jumped from hospital windows in or where coronavirus wards were located; in the sixth case, the patient was found hanged in the toilet of a psychiatric ward. The hospital has not released their names.
According to data from the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University, Bosnia-Herzegovina has Europe's highest coronavirus mortality rate at 4.5 percent with 15 percent of the country's population fully vaccinated. Bosnia, like many other countries around the world, is grappling with vaccine refusal and vaccine hesitancy.
'I Was Shocked'
Nebojsa, a 61-year-old man who requested that his surname be withheld due to privacy concerns, was receiving treatment in the COVID-19 ward on the fifth floor of the UCCRS hospital. "I was shocked because the windows were half-closed [and couldn't be opened] and they said it was so that no one would jump. Some of the patients [there] aren't doing well mentally," Nebojsa told RFE/RL's Balkans Service.
While Nebojsa praised the hospital for its modern treatment and friendly staff, he said he had witnessed firsthand the mental toll treatment was taking on patients.
"I saw a woman walking there and she couldn't find her room. Walking down that hallway, the hallway on the fifth floor is really long. I could see that she was not in the best mental state, as she couldn't find a way to her room," said Nebojsa, who was a patient at the hospital for 21 days in May.
"They left the dead across the hall. I could see the [body] bags, the bags they left there. The doctor said, 'they died.' In eight days, seven people died. On the eighth day, eight more died, meaning a total of 15 people died," Nebojsa said, adding that he didn't think that the experience had affected him psychologically.
Miodrag Femic, president of the Republika Srpska Medical Doctors Union, said the deaths were alarming and "it was time to look into why this is happening and to save people's lives so that it never happens again."
After the third suicide, which took place in May, the hospital management announced that they would "adjust the mechanism for opening the windows" and they would also install cameras to try to prevent people from jumping.
But such technical measures won’t solve the problem, warned Slobodan Stanic, a former health minister in Republika Srpska. "It is necessary to take special care of the psychological profile of people when admitting patients," he said. An assessment should be made of patients who appear vulnerable and might be a suicide risk, he said.
Doctors and health experts worldwide have warned of the mental and psychological strain on coronavirus patients admitted to intensive-care units. In addition to the physical trauma, patients are being confronted directly with the reality of death, especially in hospitals overcrowded with patients.
A large meta-analysis in the British science weekly Nature found that confirmed COVID-19 patients suffered more mental-health problems, for example anxiety and depression, than other observed cohorts, for example health-care workers or patients with suspected COVID-19.
The Banja Luka hospital did not respond to an RFE/RL enquiry about how many of the suicide victims were being treated for COVID-19 at the facility or how many of them were receiving oxygen therapy. Hospital officials also did not answer a question on what measures, if any, they were taking to prevent further suicides.
At a press conference on October 4, UCCRS representatives said that "suicides are something that hospitals around the world are facing." And Vlado Djajic, the director of UCCRS, said that the hospital has approached the situation "professionally" and that the windows can now not be fully opened.
"If we have 1,500 patients in the clinical center, we cannot place a health worker next to each patient. Every day there are psychologists, doctors, and nurses observing our patients," he said. "Even if that window had not been opened somewhere…the patient might have found some other way to commit suicide."