Sexual assault rife in psychiatric hospitals: report
By Louise Milligan
Updated 7 hours 38 minutes ago
Shocking new statistics have exposed a dark truth about the experiences of women in psychiatric care.
A report by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) reveals 45 per cent of women in the state’s psychiatric hospitals have been sexually assaulted in their care.
Moreover, the report finds 70 per cent of women who end up in psychiatric hospitals have been victims of some form of sexual abuse. In fact for many it is the cause of their mental illness.
In spite of recent changes, including women-only rooms, victims say the systems in place to protect them and the responses of hospitals are woefully inadequate.
Simone Reilly, a 32-year-old single mother, suffers from a debilitating mental illness, including bouts of mania, that has seen her hospitalised several times.
The hurt Ms Reilly endured is more than most. She was abducted by a stranger at eight and later repeatedly molested by a family member.
“I can completely lay the blame on male violence for all of my issues, 100 per cent,” she said.
When Ms Reilly went to Melbourne’s Werribee Hospital nearly 18 months ago, protecting her from further male violence was paramount.
Instead, on five separate occasions during her stay Ms Reilly says men sexually harassed or assaulted her.
She went to nurses for help, telling them men had openly masturbated in front of her and groped her.
She (Simone) 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 her further harm.Simone Reilly’s mother Sari Smith
But she says a nurse told her the men were sick too and ignored her complaints.
“I think it was worse for me that it was a woman that was trying to invalidate my pain because I felt like she was supposed to be on my side,” Ms Reilly said.
Ms Reilly was later put into high dependency. The following night, one of the men appeared in her bedroom.
“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 her further harm,” Ms Reilly’s mother, Sari Smith, said.
“She tried to take her own life inside the ward, so this is not OK.
“I won’t let her go back there again.”
For Ms Reilly, talking about her trauma is incredibly difficult. She often goes into dissociative states – a now-habitual coping mechanism.
“It’s just been horribly disabling and upsetting for me,” she said.
Her mother added: “I know that her last admission distressed her so much that quite recently she said to me, ‘I feel like a little piece of me has died’.”
Ms Reilly is one of many women who have contributed to VMIAC’s new report.
It found almost half of the women in the state’s psychiatric hospitals have been sexually assaulted, a total of 67 per cent have been sexually harassed and 85 per cent say they felt unsafe.
The report describes men freely wandering into women’s rooms, while staff stay in nurses’ stations and fail to monitor the wards.
VMIAC director Isabell Collins says action needs to be taken.
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 cornered me. Nobody came.Merinda Epstein
“To be quite frank, if this was happening to general patients we would have fixed it immediately,” she said.
“It is about time that we started taking very firm action that we’re not going to tolerate this sort of culture any more.”
Merinda Epstein is not keen to return to Werribee Hospital either.
Hospitalised shortly before Ms Reilly, she was the only woman on the high-dependency ward.
“I felt totally intimidated, totally disempowered, I thought I was going to get hurt at any moment – physically hurt,” she said.
Her fears were not unfounded. One man targeted her.
“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 cornered me. Nobody came,” Ms Epstein said.
“Three days later, he came in again… and then he’s yelling at me – I was in the bed behind him and I was trying to get out. And he’s yelling ‘I’m gonna piss on ya! I’m gonna piss on ya love!’ And he was.”
‘Fighting a losing battle’
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.
“She actually purchased a builder’s nail gun and shot herself in the heart,” Ms Field said.
“And the first thing I knew was a call to get to the Royal Melbourne Hospital and she underwent open heart surgery.”
Julie was recovering from that surgery in the St Vincent’s psychiatric ward when the abuse began.
“She had a black eye and she was in the emergency care unit,” Ms Field said.
It’s really down to us and it’s about cultural change. It’s about wanting more. And valuing and the human rights and dignity of people with mental illness.Karen Field
“And I said ‘what on Earth has happened?’ and she’d been assaulted by this same patient, a male patient in this emergency care unit. Three times, and it wasn’t until the third time that she was assaulted that they actually removed this guy from the unit.”
But the terror continued. Seven days later Ms Field got a telephone call from a psychiatric nurse urging her to get to the hospital.
“I raced over and went into the ward I was met by her. She was quite hysterical, crying, sobbing, pacing. I asked what had happened,” she said.
“One of the nurses told me she had been sexually assaulted. I asked if the police had been called or if she’d been offered to lay charges against the person or had she received medical treatment. Nothing had been done.
“We were just fighting a losing battle.”
Ms Preston never recovered from her rape.
“Her mental health just deteriorated,” Ms Field said.
“I think the whole injustice just didn’t leave her from that moment on.”
In November 2011, two years after her rape, Ms Preston committed suicide.
“(The) hardest thing about all this is I don’t think she actually realised what a gift she was to the world,” Ms Field said.
“I work in this business and it is such a failure that we’d even consider this as inevitable… it was just too wrong that this was such a common story.
“It’s really down to us and it’s about cultural change. It’s about wanting more and valuing and the human rights and dignity of people with mental illness.”…