New research paints a frightening picture of our psychiatric hospitals.

New research paints a frightening picture of our psychiatric hospitals. Photo: Getty

QUESTION: Where in the world could you go to find a place where half of all women are raped?

ANSWER: Australia’s psychiatric hospitals.

That’s the shocking conclusion of a new report from the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VIMIAC).

Their survey of women who have been in psychiatric wards in Victorian hospitals paints a shocking picture.

A terrifying 85 per cent said they had felt unsafe, with most saying they reported it to doctors and nurses and felt nothing was done. About 45 per cent had been sexually assaulted in hospital.

Just imagine the terror. You are alone, in a foreign place, completely under the control of medical staff, many of whom you have only just met, and surrounded by very disturbed people.

Even worse, you are disturbed: so depressed you unable to defend yourself, or perhaps already being tortured by fears, feelings or voices.  There is a good chance you have a previous history of being assaulted, as such attacks vastly increase your chance of developing a mental illness.

It’s sickening. It’s happening now. And we are standing by and doing nothing.

“We expect people with mental illness to tolerate what no-one else would tolerate,” says Isabell Collins from VIMIAC. “It would only need to happen once in a general hospital ward and it would be fixed immediately.”

Yet, says Collins, she has been working in mental health for 25 years, “and sexual assault has been a problem for 25 years”.

Her survey included about 50 women from Victoria, but Collins says it does not overestimate the problem.

“If anything it underestimates it,” she says. “If you did the exact same survey in any state you would expect the same results”.

How could this be? How can we allow our most vulnerable people to be treated in this way? It’s hard not to agree with Collins that the answer is that society would rather just ignore mental illness, scared off by stigma and misinformation and a desire to sweep difficult problems under the carpet.

The incoming head of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Mal Hopwood, says that while he can’t be sure on the exact proportion of women raped in care, there is clearly a problem that exists around the country.

“Certainly the numbers in that report suggest it’s not an insignificant problem,” he says.

He wants hospitals to be properly funded to enforce female-only areas and support women who are assaulted.

But he says fixing buildings and allocating spaces won’t be enough: an attitude change is needed as well.

You also have to wonder if our over-reliance on medication and biological psychiatry have helped downplay the importance of creating positive environments in psych hospitals.

After all, if mental illness is just a brain disease that needs the right medication, then surely a stark, busy, hospital environment will make no difference?

But mental illness is closely linked to both our personal experiences and the culture we are living in, and putting people in scary, loud and under-resourced hospitals cannot be helping.

I couldn’t have more admiration for many of the hard-working doctors and nurses working in public hospital psychiatric units, yet the truth is that most of these places are awful to be in.

Rape is the terrible tip of a huge problem that we have been ignoring for far too long.