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Friday, November 27, 1998 Published at 18:11 GMT


Abuse rife on mental health wards - claims survey

Women are at risk of abuse on psychiatric wards, claims a BBC survey

A half of women who have been in psychiatric wards claim they have been sexually abused there, according to a BBC survey.

The survey of women psychiatric patients found that 49% said they had been sexually abused, 16% said they had been touched inappropriately and 6% said they had been forced to have sex.

One woman claimed to have been raped.

The survey, for BBC Bristol's Close Up West programme, is said to be the most extensive look at the issue from a patient's point of view.

Health reporter Matthew Hill sent out 404 questionnaires to women in the region who had been through the psychiatric system.

Twenty-one per cent of respondents said they had been abused by staff and 40% by patients.

Mixed wards

The survey brings into question the issue of whether mentally ill women should have separate areas in psychiatric wards.

In the last few years, many of the old mental asylums have been closed down and patients put in smaller, purpose-built units which are thought to be less intimidating and more comfortable.

Some hospitals continue to put women psychiatric patients on mixed wards, but a few have women-only units.

Many now have separate sleeping and wash areas for women, but the sexes still tend to mix in hospital activities and at meal times.

One 17-year-old woman, Laura, threw scalding water in the face of a man she said was sexually harassing her.

She was on a mixed ward where the average age of patients was 45.

She spent four months in a prison medical wing after the incident with the water, but has since been moved back into a psychiatric unit, once again on a mixed ward.

Normal society

Only two hospitals in the South West region have written policies on patient abuse.

Managers claim abuse is not a major problem. Some doctors say it is unhelpful to put women in women-only units.

Dr Simon Britten, a consultant psychiatrist, said: "They have to overcome their fear and anxiety about normal society. It is unnatural to provide for every single patinent the environment they want."

[ image: Mixed wards in psychiatric units can lead to abuse]
Mixed wards in psychiatric units can lead to abuse
Mental health charities say the real picture could be much worse than the survey suggests.

They say many women are not believed because of their mental illness.

Earle Kessler, of Mind in the South West, said children who claimed to have been abused had not been believed for years.

"To take the attitude that these women cannot be believed because they are mentally distressed is an appalling thing to be doing," he said.

More doors

Jane says she was on a ward where women had a separate bedroom and washroom area, but they shared their living space with men.

She claimed the ward was "a hormone jungle" and says she was stalked by one male patient.

One symptom of her illness was that she had a lack of sexual inhibitions and she says this made her easy prey for some of the men.

She asked her GP if she could be moved to a woman-only unit, but the doctor said it was not possible, given the layout of the hospital.

Architect Neil McDougal says it may not be expensive to ensure women patients are safe.

He says it is just a question of adding more doors to psychiatric units, creating a distinction between female and general areas.

However, this would not protect them from staff who abuse patients.

Mental health overhaul

In the next month, the government is to unveil detailed plans of how it is to overhaul mental health care.

The issue of phasing out mixed sex wards is likely to feature in its plans, but it is unlikely there will be a recommendation for women-only units.

Mind, which has done a big campaign against mixed psychiatric wards, says women are often too frightened to report abuse and worried they will not be taken seriously.

It wants hospitals to make it easier to report abuse, for example, by employing trained women key workers to deal with abuse complaints.

The Prevention of Professional Abuse Network says of the people who rang its helpline to say they had been abused, 70% were mental health patients.

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