Women have been subjected to 300 sexual assaults in mixed-sex mental health wards during the past three years. New data obtained from mental health trusts has shown the true extent of the problem has been grossly underestimated.
An earlier confidential health report for the Government in July said women in mental health units had been the victim of 100 incidents of sexual assault during the past two years. Between November 2003 and March 2006 there were over 300 alleged sexual assaults on wards in England alone, of which 224 were by patients on other patients.
Around a quarter of patients report that they are not able to be separate from the opposite sex, which is in sharp contrast to Government claims that 99 per cent of psychiatric wards are now single sex. In reality, a partition can consist of a curtain to divide a room of men and women, and day areas can remain mixed.
Mental health campaigners such as Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the charity Sane, say these revised figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
"Psychiatric units have become places which are rife with aggression and fear because of overcrowding and understaffing," she said.
"Sexual assaults happen far too easily and when they do they are not being taken seriously and reported."
Increased pressure from mental health charities has forced the Government to announce a £30m funding package to increase women's safety on wards.
And the Department of Health is drawing up new guidelines for improving sexual safety in the NHS, to be published in spring 2007, following the latest findings by Community Care magazine.
Professor Louis Appleby, the Government's mental health tsar, has expressed doubt over the veracity of a number of alleged rapes.
"In my opinion, there is significant doubt in the majority of cases as to whether any incident occurred," he said. "But I believe the issue of sexual safety remains important and I am determined to see it addressed."
But Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, said Government scepticism is part of the problem.
"Patients have to believe it is worth making a complaint and that they will be taken seriously," he said.
Moira Fraser, head of policy at the Mental Health Foundation, said attitudes of managers and frontline staff needed to change.
"Patients must feel safe to report any incidents and these must be taken seriously by staffand acted upon," she said.
Hundreds of minors are admitted to adult psychiatric wards each year, which can put them at risk, says the YoungMinds charity.
"We are aware of a recent case where a 17-year-old was placed on a ward with an adult male who had previously sexually assaulted a minor," a spokeswoman for the charity said.
"This placed a young person in extreme danger."
The Victim: 'He pounced and grabbed my breast'
Jenny, 37, was sexually assaulted during a stay on a psychiatric unit in the summer of 2004. A male former patient was a regular visitor to the ward.
"I was just going to the main office and he pounced and got me in a bear hug while he grabbed my breast and tried to kiss me. I screamed and pushed him away. If I hadn't been able to fight him off anything could have happened. Staff were too busy to do anything about it. I didn't get the police involved because I thought nobody would believe me.
"You go there to get better, not to be assaulted."