Sex harassment 'rife in mental hospital wards'

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Sexual harassment of female patients in mental hospitals is rife, according to a report by Mental Health Act Commissioners and the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

The commissioners visited 309 acute psychiatric wards in 118 NHS Trusts in England and Wales - almost 50 per cent of all mental health in-patient services - one day last November.

In just over half the wards visited, it was discovered that women patients were being harassed by male patients. Problems included flashing, physical assaults and verbal harassment of vulnerable women.

The unannounced inspections were concerned with the numbers and qualifications of nursing staff, staff understanding of policy, procedures about leave for detained patients and the safety and privacy of women patients.

Commissioners discovered that 32 detained patients were absent without leave and that many hospitals were having considerable difficulties in authorising such leave.

The total number of admitted patients was 6,361, a third of whom were detained under the Mental Health Act. Excluding those on overnight leave, there were 5,515 patients present on the wards: 2,743 men and 2,772 women.

Although the commissioners discovered that the wards were adequately staffed by trained and experienced nurses, a large proportion of nurses' time was taken up observing those at risk of harming themselves or others.

The report's most worrying conclusions, however, related to the safety and privacy of women. Just over half the wards identified problems of sexual harassment of women patients by male patients, including exploitation of vulnerable women, verbal harassment, watching or following female patients, exposure by male patients and touching of women patients.

Over half the women had to share toilets with male patients or had to walk through or past areas for men to use baths, showers or toilets, and a small number of women (3 per cent) had to share sleeping areas with male patients.

Viscountess Runciman, chairwoman of the Mental Health Act Commission, said: "The picture is mixed but not unhopeful and the report will enable particular attention to be paid to that vital component of mental health services; the care and treatment in hospital of patients with severe mental illness."

Dr Matt Muijen, director of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, said: 'This report is a unique snapshot of national acute in-patient mental health services, and it provides useful information for managers to set targets for quality improvements".