Sexual assault rife in psychiatric wards

June 13, 2013

Almost half of all women admitted to psychiatric wards in Victoria are sexually assaulted, a survey of patients has found.

The survey also found that two-thirds had been sexually harassed and most of them felt unsafe.

To make female patients feel safe, a hospital in Melbourne's west will introduce electronic swipe cards to separate them from male patients, the Wyndham Weekly reports.

Mental Health Minister Marry Wooldridge announced on Wednesday that the Mercy Hospital in Werribee would receive $259,000 to install a nurse-call system, bedroom locks in the inpatient areas, and create areas specifically for women.

The money follows the release of a new report revealing almost half the women in Victorian hospitals' psychiatric units have been sexually assaulted.

The Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) report states that in the past 20 years many women have been abused, assaulted and harassed by male patients and staff in the state's mental health centres.

A survey of 50 women who had been admitted to psychiatric units for treatment found that 85 per cent of them felt unsafe, while 67 per cent reported being sexually harassed. Forty-five per cent said they had been sexually assaulted.

When Merinda Epstein suffered a manic episode last year, she was taken to a high-dependency unit.

"I was the only woman in there," Ms Epstein said. "And that was so dumb."

She said the unit had seven other patients at the time and they were the ones with the greatest mental health needs. Most were furious that they were in there.

"It was like a washing machine of distress," the Altona Meadows resident said.

It wasn't long before Ms Epstein, 56, who suffers bipolar disorder, found her fears about being the only woman weren't unfounded.

She said that one morning, a male patient came into her room as she was getting dressed and cornered her.

"He scared me. He pulled down his pants, with all his genitalia showing, he came over to me, pinned me against a wall," she said.

Ms Epstein managed to get past the man and into a common area.

Two days later, the man returned to her room. This time, he came into her shower and began urinating in her direction.

"I can still smell him," she said.

Ms Epstein has lodged a formal complaint with the hospital involved and the Department of Human Services.

Mercy Health chief executive Stephen Cornelissen said there had been as many as 11 allegations of sexual assault reported to the Werribee Mercy Hospital in the past three years, and that was too many.

"Over the past three years Mercy Health has improved the way it assesses and manages risk in its mental health unit and introduced specific practices to improve safety for women in our care," he said.

"New state government funding of $259,000 will improve the current unit to include tailored swipe card access allowing clients to lock their bedrooms, a client nurse-call system and gender-specific courtyards."

Mr Cornelissen said psychiatric units had been designed for both sexes, which limited the ability of staff to restrict access to bedrooms.

He said a new state government-funded mental health unit, opening at the hospital in 2016, would address the problems by including areas only accessible to women and staff.

VMIAC director Isabell Collins said that while women-only areas and swipe cards were a step in the right direction, there needed to be many changes to the way mental health centres operated. Many women who completed the survey said their reports of abuse and harassment had been ignored by staff.

"There is an attitude that women with mental illnesses don't matter," Ms Collins said. "When these women aren't taken seriously, it is soul-destroying. It is bad enough that you have been raped or sexually assaulted, but to have someone undermine that is devastating.”

Ms Collins said mental health units needed to ensure all patients were assessed on admission to determine their vulnerability to being abused or abusing others. The survey found that assessments were often skipped because nurses had too much other paperwork.

Mr Cornelissen said patients at Werribee were always assessed on admission.

Source: Laura Little and Nick Toscano, "Sexual assault rife in psychiatric wards," Sydney Morning Herald, June 13, 2013.


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