Call for single-sex psychiatric units

By Carol Nader
October 4, 2004

Vulnerable mentally ill women are being sexually assaulted by other patients and staff while being treated in hospitals, prompting calls for men and women to be separated in psychiatric units.

Female psychiatric patients have complained to the Mental Health Legal Centre about feeling unsafe at sharing wards with men who have the potential to be aggressive.

They also felt their lack of safety was trivialised by staff and reports of sexual assault were not taken seriously.

Centre co-ordinator Vivienne Topp said there had been cases where patients had been raped by other patients, police had investigated, but the cases did not proceed further.

"I think it's in some ways an experience that all women have in those settings," Ms Topp said. "It might not be as overt as sexual abuse, but certainly they'd be more frightened and vulnerable just sharing a unit with someone who's quite psychotic and aggressive."

Ms Topp said women should be given a choice of being treated in mixed-gender or single-sex units, but very few of the state's hospitals had separate wards. A public forum tomorrow will explore these issues.

Department of Human Services spokesman Bram Alexander said psychiatric units had mixed-gender common areas but not bedrooms. He said there was an expectation that hospitals had policies and procedures in place to deal with assault.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Bronwyn Pike, Melissa Arch, said the Government had no plans to introduce separate wards for men and women.

The taboo nature of the issue makes it difficult to gauge its prevalence. Research was last conducted 10 years ago, for the Southeast Centre Against Sexual Assault. The author, Carolyn Graham, found that almost a quarter of mentally ill women had been sexually assaulted or harassed while in hospital - more than half by another patient.

"I'm afraid to say I don't think anything's changed," she said.

The worst case was of a woman who had complained to staff about being hassled by a male patient. To her amazement, she was put in the same open ward as the man, who eventually raped her. She became pregnant.

One woman told The Age that her 18-year-old daughter was treated at a Melbourne hospital psychiatric unit while there was a "sexual predator with a penchant for young women" roaming the dormitory.

"Mixed wards are definitely not appropriate when there are mental health issues," she said. "My daughter was terrified of these men prowling around."

Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council director Isabell Collins said sometimes a symptom of being mentally unwell was that people were more promiscuous, but were unable to give informed consent.

"When they recover they're extremely distressed about the relationships they've had while in hospital," she said.

Ms Collins said one of her clients was a female patient who was raped by a male patient while in hospital. Police decided that because both were involuntary patients, it would be difficult to proceed and took no action. She was told that any legal action against the hospital would be fought "every inch of the way".

"My client couldn't cope with the stress of that and decided not to proceed," she said.

Opposition health spokesman David Davis said patients had a right to feel safe in hospitals.