Women not safe from violence in mental health inpatient facilities

Women who spend time in mental health inpatient facilities are not being protected from gender-based violence, according to new research.

The new findings show that women experience sexual assault, sexual harassment and related threats while staying in the facilities.

Violence is being perpetrated by other inpatients, by visitors, and by staff.

The study, conducted by researchers from RMIT University and Charles Sturt University, found many mental health services lacked appropriate policies and procedures to support women who report violence during their stay.

Although the study found some examples of women receiving supportive responses, incidents of harassment were also frequently disbelieved or not taken seriously.

“Women told us about staff who dismiss their experiences as misperceptions and tell them to ignore it,” said lead researcher from RMIT Dr Juliet Watson.

“But if a woman is perceiving some behaviour as violent, she should have the opportunity to decide what action is taken.”

“Staff should then respond in a way that ensures she feels safe.”

Many of the female clients staying in these facilities have previously survived violent trauma.

The study found that the experience of being restrained by staff, which is common during treatment, may be a trigger for traumatic memories of past abuse.

ANROWS CEO, Dr Heather Nancarrow, said there is an urgent need for trauma-informed care.

“This is a profound breach of trust by our health system.” Dr Nancarrow said.

“Mental health service providers need training and support. It’s crucial they understand the impact their actions might have on women with a history of sexual, domestic or family violence.”

“If women are to have access to safe, dignified and effective mental healthcare, we need to build a gender lens into hospital policies and procedures.”

This study is part of ANROWS’s growing body of evidence about how an understanding of gendered violence can be embedded in health policy and services.

This research includes the WITH and SUSTAIN studies, and ‘Constructions of complex trauma and implications for women’s wellbeing and safety from violence’.

While mental health facilities have introduced processes to protect inpatients from violence, the models most commonly used across Australia do not employ a gender lens, and as a result they leave women exposed to gendered violence, including domestic violence.

“We need mental health facilities to place the agency of women at the centre of their treatment,” Dr Nancarrow said.

“This means consulting closely with each woman to build a plan of recovery that is sensitive to her history and respects her own judgement about what will keep her safe.”

“Feeling safe is a requirement for getting well.”

/RMIT University News Release. View in full here.