Like any patient, women with mental illness expect the hospital to be a safe place for healing. The experiences of women in Victoria's psychiatric institutions paint a distinctly darker picture. Instead of being sanctuaries, psychiatric hospitals across Victoria are rife with sexual abuse, harassment, and neglect.
A recent Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) report shows 45% of women in Victorian psychiatric hospitals have been sexually assaulted and/or raped while in care. 67% have experienced sexual harassment. 85% say they feel unsafe.
We call on the State Government of Victoria, Premier Denis Napthine and Mental Health Minister Mary Woolridge to implement the VMIAC report's recommendations without hesitation. This is a state of emergency.
The VMIAC report also shows that while 59% of women affected reported abuse to a nurse or doctor - showing courage in the face of apathy - in 85% of cases nothing further was discussed.
These numbers have deadly consequences. According to the ABC's 7.30 report, women report being raped, urinated on, verbally abused, and male patients entering their rooms without permission - while nurses and doctors stand by.
This is utterly unacceptable. If 45% of women in cancer wards were sexually assaulted, or 65% of women in a maternity ward reported sexual harassment, the reaction from the public and politicians would be swift and damning. The public health system would be immediately overhauled.
Yet, this is reality for women with psychiatric illnesses. These women are among society's most vulnerable, and for rates of abuse to be so high is shocking and unacceptable.
$4 million has been committed to health services across Victoria to create women-only wards. But this is not a real solution.
New courtyards alone won't fix this problem. Swipe cards into rooms alone won't fix this problem. The problem is of the culture within psychiatric care, and our neglect of people most prone to sexual abuse.
We call upon the State Government and the Opposition to immediately implement the reforms outlined in the VMIAC report. These reforms include mandatory reporting of sexual assault to the Chief Psychiatrist, a minimum of two nurses active on wards at all times, and referral to the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) for patients who have suffered abuse while in care.
It's time to stop this systemic abuse. Women with mental illnesses are like anyone else: when we're ill, we want to get better. But before we can fix ourselves, the system itself needs to be fixed.
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