shocking sexual assault statistics
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Nearly half of women in psychiatric care have been sexually assaulted according to a report that raises serious questions about recent changes to mental health units.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Shocking new research has exposed a dark truth about the dangers to women in psychiatric care.
Most female patients in mental health facilities have a history of being sexually abused, so you would hope that being in care would provide a safe haven, but far from it.
A new study shows that almost half the female patients were sexually assaulted while in mental health units and more than 80 per cent lived in fear of being abused.
Most perpetrators were other patients and victims report that the systems in place to protect them are woefully inadequate.
Louise Milligan has our report, and a warning: some viewers may find it disturbing
LOUISE MILLIGAN, REPORTER: Flicking through the family album is a bittersweet task for Sari Smith. The pictures show her daughter Simone growing from an adorable happy child to a pained teenager.
SARI SMITH, MOTHER: That’s my baby. And you don’t ever, ever want anybody to hurt them or treat them badly.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Now herself a mother, Simone Reilly suffers from a debilitating mental illness, including bouts of mania that’s seen her hospitalised several times. The hurt Simone endured is more than most. She was abducted by a stranger at eight and says she was later raped by a relative.
SIMONE REILLY: I can completely lay the blame on male violence for all of my issues, yep, 100 per cent.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: When, nearly 18 months ago, she went to Melbourne’s Werribee Hospital, protecting her from further male violence was paramount. Instead, on five separate occasions, Simone says men sexually harassed or assaulted her. She told the nurses men had openly masturbated in front of her and groped her, but she says a nurse just told her the men were sick too.
SIMONE REILLY: I think it was worse for me that it was a woman who was trying to invalidate my pain, because I felt like she was supposed to be on my side.
SARI SMITH: I think my daughter is fantastic and I think she will recover, but I think it’s going to take a long time.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Simone was put into high dependency. The following night one of the men appeared in her bedroom.
SARI SMITH: She woke up in the middle of the night to this person who’d already assaulted her in the process of having removed his clothes with a clear intent to cause further harm. … She tried to take her own life inside the ward. So … this is not OK.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: You must just really hope that she never has to go back there again.
SARI SMITH: I won’t let her go back there again.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: For Simone, talking about her trauma is incredibly difficult. She often goes into dissociative states, a now-habitual coping mechanism.
SIMONE REILLY: It’s just been horribly disabling and upsetting for me.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Simone has contributed to a new report by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council that’s found 45 per cent of women in the state’s psychiatric hospitals have been sexually assaulted. 67 per cent have been sexually harassed and 85 per cent felt unsafe. It describes men freely wandering into the women’s rooms, staff saying in nurses’ stations and not monitoring the wards.
The report says that 70 per cent of women who end up in psychiatric hospitals have been victims of some form of sexual abuse. For many, it’s the cause of their mental illness. So it’s critical for their recovery that they aren’t threatened by sexual violence while they’re being treated.
ISABELL COLLINS, VICTORIAN MENTAL ILLNESS AWARENESS COUNCIL: To be quite frank, if this was happening to general patients, we would’ve fixed it immediately. And I do think that it is about time that we started taking very firm action that we’re not going to tolerate this sort of culture anymore.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Merinda Epstein isn’t keen to return to Werribee either. Hospitalised shortly before Simone Reilly, she was the only woman on the high dependency ward.
MERINDA EPSTEIN: I felt totally intimidated, totally disempowered. I thought I was going to get hurt at any moment, physically hurt.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Her fears were not unfounded. One man targeted her.
MERINDA EPSTEIN: He came into my room the first time. He pulled out his genitalia. He yelled at me and said, “I’m gonna f*** ya! I’m gonna f*** ya! I’m gonna f*** ya!,” and then just, just cornered me in the corner. Nobody came… three days later, he came in again and this time he’s yelling at me, “I’m gonna piss on ya! I’m gonna piss on ya, love! I’m gonna piss on ya, love!” And he was.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: But these experiences are by no means confined to one hospital. Julie Preston was raped in the psychiatric ward of St Vincent’s Hospital. She too was a childhood victim of sexual abuse. She was a ward of the state from the age of 12. It left her with post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders.
Her guardian, Karen Field, is a social worker. For years she battled to keep Julie alive. Julie had tried to take her life more than once.
KAREN FIELD, GUARDIAN: She actually purchased a builder’s nail gun and shot herself in the heart. And the first thing I knew was a call to get to Royal Women’s – Royal Melbourne Hospital and she underwent open heart surgery.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Julie was recovering from that surgery in the St Vincent’s psychiatric ward when the abuse began. Karen went to visit her.
KAREN FIELD: She had a black eye. She’d been assaulted by the same patient, a male patient in this emergency care unit, ECU, three times. And it wasn’t until the third time that she was assaulted that they actually removed this guy from the unit.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: But the terror continued. Seven days later, Karen Field got a telephone call from a psychiatric nurse urging her to get to the hospital.
KAREN FIELD: She was quite hysterical, crying, sobbing, pacing… I asked what had happened, and one of the nurses had told me that she’d been sexually assaulted. I asked if the police had been called or if she’d been offered to lay charges against the person, has she received medical treatment? Nothing had been done.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Here she was in a place where she’s supposed to be protected, where she’s supposed to be getting better from a horrible suicide attempt and she’s raped.
KAREN FIELD: Yep. And it was – I mean, we were just fighting a losing battle.
ISABELL COLLINS: Everybody needs hope. We should not have an attitude that we expect these things to occur on a psychiatric in-patient unit. They’ve been able to occur because they can, because our practices allow them to get away with it and our response to them allows it to continue.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The report’s recommendations include mandatory reports to the chief psychiatrist, lockable doors for women patients which can only be opened by nurses’ keys and care plans to take account of previous sexual traumas.
Julie Preston never really recovered from her rape.
KAREN FIELD: Her mental health just deteriorated and there was just no way back. I think that the – just the whole injustice just didn’t leave her from that moment on.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: In November 2011, two years after her rape, Julie threw herself under a train. She left Karen a letter.
KAREN FIELD: (Reading from letter) “I apologise for not having the guts to talk to you, to let you know where I was at. But I really wanted to die and I couldn’t risk you trying to stop me. Please believe me, I’m in the arms of the angels now and are at total peace with myself. Please, just let me go.”
That’s the hardest thing about all this is that I don’t think she actually realised what a gift she was to the world. I work in this business and it is such a failure of ours, it is such a failure of our systems that we’d even consider this as inevitable.
LEIGH SALES: Louise Milligan with that report.
Victoria’s Minister for Mental Health, Mary Wooldridge says women have the right to treatment and care “free from fear of victimisation, violence, sexual assault and retraumatisation.” Read her full statement.
A spokeswoman for St Vincent’s Hospital said: “We take allegations of assault and sexual assault extremely seriously. At the time of any allegation we take immediate action to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all concerned. Our policy requires that any sexual assault, whether proven or alleged, must be reported to the police and the patient’s family.
“We are continually improving patient safety, and have strengthened our risk assessment practices to identify and protect vulnerable patients. We are soon to start building works to provide a separate female only area in the mental health unit for vulnerable female patients following the recent allocation of State Government funding.”
Werribee Mercy Hospital provided a statement in response to this program. Read the full statement.
And you can also read the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council’s full A Safe Admission for Women report.