The number of rape cases in psychiatric hospitals is horrifying

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.

14 comments

  • As a survivor of the NSW public psychiatric system, who has been traumatised beyond belief by the barbaric, dehumanising and humliating treatment I have received in the name of mental health care, I couldn't agree more with Amy's article.

    As Isabell Collins from VIMIAC says, this sort of outrage, ''would only need to happen once in a general hospital ward and it would be fixed immediately.”

    Welcome to the second class citizenship of those labelled with a mental illness.

    I am fortunate enough to have never been sexually assaulted in a public ward, although if you count a man masturbating within a few feet of me, I certainly have not been left unscathed by unwanted sexual behavior in that context.

    I have however been brutalised and traumatised in other ways which I believe are equally as serious and have had just as horrific an impact on my mental health.

    I have been locked in ''seclusion'' - a bare room with a mattress on the floor - for hours on end and despite increasingly desperate pleas to use the bathroom, left there till I wet myself.

    I have been physically assaulted by a group of six nurses who surrounded me, threw me to the ground, jumped on top of me, held me down and pulled down my pants to inject me with I don't know what. I was never given the option of a dignified injection or oral medication.

    In each case, i did nothing to provoke this treatment.

    The sexual assault rate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights abuses occurring in Australian public psychiatric wards.

    Unlike Amy, I have little respect for the doctors and nurses who work in that system: they are complicit in the abuse and often perpetrators of it.

    Commenter
    cj
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 10:28AM
    • We can not leave it as it is. We must stop bureaucracy abusing vulnerable. Whether in hospitals or elsewhere.

      Read case studies in the document below and ask yourself - are you sure our society is as civilised as we think?

      http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/lrc/ll_lrc.nsf/vwFiles/cref123_PN14.pdf/$file/cref123_PN14.pdf

      Commenter
      dinkumnet.com
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 1:54PM
  • This is horrifying reading, and something that requires action.
    There is a scheme in Victoria called Working With Children Check that has been operating since about 2005, and I understand there are similar schemes in most other states. Perhaps we need to consider converting these schemes into Working With Vulnerable People schemes, so that all vulnerable people are covered. People intending to work in the care industry would have police and criminal checks undertaken before employment, plus ongoing checks on a weekly basis thereafter. Exactly who would be covered is something governments have to work out but I imagine it would cover children, older people in aged care institutions, patients in hospitals, disabled people and so on.
    Again we will see a State vs Federal argument over funding, but it is something that is needed and soon.

    Commenter
    John
    Location
    Victoria
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 10:33AM
    • So, all these hard-working doctors and nurses you so admire... what action do they take when an assault is reported to them? or are the assaults magically only reported to the doctors and nurses who are also perpetrators? Have the police ever been called to investigate an assualt?

      For this problem to be so widespread and so long standing means that the whole industry has closed their eyes. Why has noone spoken up? Until the perpetrators are brought to justice, what incentive is there for them to stop?

      Commenter
      K
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 10:55AM
      • K, from my experience, staff (nurses mostly) usually don't give a flying you-know-what about patients' allegations of sexual or any other form of abuse.

        Their response with anything sexual is usually ''oh, but they (perpetrator when it is a patient) are very ill too''. In other words, suck it up.
        I imagine if an allegation was made against a staff member you would be accused of being ''delusional''. I know that was the hospital's response when I complained to the HCCC about being physically assaulted.

        As to calling the police, when you are in a psych ward any statement you make to police cannot legally be binding or given any validity because you are ''mentally ill'' and thus an unreliable witness ie if you call them, they will not come because you are in a psych ward. Your only option is to wait until you are released.

        Even then your statements are not given any validity or treated in the same way as those of people without psychiatric labels...

        So the perpetrators of these serious crimes - be they staff or other patients - are let of scott free. Every. Single. Time.

        Commenter
        cj
        Date and time
        May 16, 2013, 11:45AM
    • I am horrified at this and indeed any act of aggression on any type of person. What is not clear is who is doing this . Is it patients to patient or staff to patients ?

      Commenter
      vicb7
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 11:43AM
      • vicb7 - The report Amy is writing about is about patient on patient sexual assault.

        However, there have been instances of staff sexually assaulting patients: I am aware of one victim who wrote her university thesis about her personal experience of being raped in a psych ward by a male nurse as a teenager.

        So it does happen. What worries me is that all a staff member would have to say if they were accused of sexually abusing a patient is that the allegation was a ''delusion'' or the patient was ''hysterical'' or had a personality disorder or any one of a hundred other labels and they would be absolved.

        The potential for committing acts of abuse on patients with no legal or other repercussion for the criminal committing them is enormous

        Something needs to be done: this state of affairs is disgraceful and a human right abuse of massive proportions..

        Commenter
        cj
        Date and time
        May 16, 2013, 12:28PM
    • These attacks happen in Aged Care premises as well. Men and women should be kept separate. Also, women to look after female patients and men to males. Someone I know went to hospital for heart surgery 12 years ago and a male nurse came to depilate including the private parts. She has not yet got over it. She feels like she was violated. It will stay with her forever. Separate the sexes in the care sectors for their safety and dignity.

      Commenter
      Mary
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 1:15PM
      • This is bad! Very bad!
        I felt sick when I was reading the article.
        Hope something comes out of it.
        Hope one of our corrupt politicians do something to fix the problem to gain some extra votes.

        Commenter
        wsar111
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 16, 2013, 1:22PM
        • A few years ago the local hospital built a completely new psychiatric wing. It cost millions to build and is all very nice, however the two new units are both mixed genders. There is a small area that is designated women only but the door to the area is not even closed. Access is near the nurses station but if the nurses are busy elsewhere anyone can just walk in. Also to eat, get medication, participate in activities or watch television requires being in the mixed area.
          I often find myself asking are the people running the mental health system ignorant, stupid or do they just not care about women. Why would you design a new facility that does not properly address the safety of women patients.
          As the article mentions sexual assault increases the risk of mental illness, and in my experience a high percentage of women with a mental illness have experienced sexual assault prior to becoming ill. Their first need on the road to recovery is to feel safe.
          It is a sad indictment of the system that many women leave hospitals worse than when they entered.

          Commenter
          C
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 16, 2013, 1:26PM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed