Helen Macpherson Smith Trust

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Case Study: Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council

ProjectMaking Women’s Safety in Victorian Public Inpatient Units a Reality.




This grant was approved under our previous grants policy
Building capacity Drive change in the systemic sexual abuse or harassment by male patients in Victoria’s psychiatric inpatient units.
Extending opportunity Protect the basic rights of women receiving inpatient psychiatric care.
Collaboration and partnership Collaboration with the Department of Human Services, numerous psychiatric support services in the metropolitan, regional and rural areas and community service providers.

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault: A safe admission for women.

A study by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC), the peak body for people with mental illness or emotional problems, has revealed shocking statistics on psychiatric admission experiences for women. Data gathered from nine Area Mental Health Services (AMHS) across the state showed that 85% of women felt unsafe during hospitalisation, 67% reported experiencing sexual or other forms of harassment from male patients and 45% had experienced sexual assault. Just over 60% reported the assault to nurses, but 82% indicated the nurses’ responses were “not at all helpful”.

While the level of abuse suffered by women in psychiatric inpatient units would not be tolerated in any other area of health, strategies such as female-only corridors, women’s lounges and gender-sensitive training have had no real impact on improving the rights of women to feel safe and be safe.

Policies and practice protocols to address these rights have not been updated for more than a decade, and women’s safety has not been given the high priority recommended in The Patient Majority: Mental Health Policy and Services for Women report released 20 years ago.

With the goal of raising public awareness and driving change, VMIAC undertook an extensive project funded by the Trust, including surveys, focus groups, individual consultations, literature research and data analysis.

The project report, Zero tolerance for sexual assault: a safe admission for women was released in May 2013. The report’s recommendations included:

  • Zero tolerance of sexual assault or harassment in all Victorian psychiatric services;  new preventative strategies and biannual reporting of outcomes for all psychiatric inpatient units
  • Mandatory reporting of all allegations and preparation of incident reports; data to be included in the annual report of the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist
  • Expand the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist to include random spot-checks and audits of inpatient units
  • A nursing history and care plan for every patient; a minimum of two nurses on wards at all times
  • CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault) services offered to inpatients where required
  • Continued funding for education in Victorian psychiatric wards; all clinicians to undertake training on human sexuality
  • Ongoing funding for VMIAC to monitor women’s safety and conduct further surveys
  • An all-stakeholder committee including government, union members, the Australian Nursing Federation and VMIAC to work through recommendations and develop further strategies.

Project outcomes 

When the project report was released, a public outcry resulted. The ABC 7.30 Report aired the story, and an avalanche of phone calls and emails from around Australia prompted a follow-up program. Thousands of comments were posted on Facebook. What was a state issue quickly became a national issue.

The report became a major catalyst for action, and decision makers’ doors which previously had been closed were suddenly opened.

The report was forwarded to the National Mental Health Commission, which is discussing a national approach, says VMIAC Director, Isabell Collins.

“We are discussing with the Department the need for a trauma-informed care approach and the need for holistic nursing histories to be taken when a person is admitted to hospital,” Ms Collins says. “We are keeping this on the agenda.”

Major community service providers such as Uniting Care are also urging the Minister to implement all recommendations in the report.

“I want to thank the Trust for its support in providing the funding to enable us to undertake this project,” Ms Collins says. “Thank you is such a small thing to say, but it is truly meant.”


"The report became a major catalyst for action, and decision makers’ doors which previously had been closed were suddenly opened." says VMIAC Director, Isabell Collins.