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



ProgramPast Programs | Health

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 - how a small project became a major catalyst for action

A study by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC), the peak body for people with mental illness or emotional problems, revealed shocking statistics on psychiatric admission experiences for women. Data gathered across the state showed that 85% of women felt unsafe during hospitalisation, 67% reported experiencing harassment from male patients and 45% had experienced sexual assault. 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 social media. What was a state issue quickly became a national issue.

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 were having no real impact on improving the rights of women to feel safe and be safe. With the goal of raising public awareness and driving change, VMIAC undertook an extensive project funded by HMSTrust, 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 became a major catalyst for action, and decision makers’ doors which previously had been closed were suddenly opened.
  • In 2014, the Mental Health Act 2014 came into effect, repealing the outdated Mental Health Act 1986. VMIAC’s report was a key element in modernising the law.
  • The report was forwarded to the National Mental Health Commission for consideration of a national approach.
  • Major community service providers supported full implementation of all recommendations in the report.


Updated Oct 2019

"Decision makers’ doors which previously had been closed were suddenly opened," said (then) VMIAC Director, Isabell Collins.