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Women who spend time in mental health inpatient facilities are being exposed to sexual assault, harassment and related threats from other inpatients, visitors and even staff in some facilities, according to alarming new research.

According to the study, Preventing gender-based violence in mental health inpatient units, women are not being protected from the gender-based violence.

Conducted in Victoria by researchers from RMIT University and Charles Sturt University, the study also found many services lacked appropriate policies and procedures to support women who reported such violence during their stay.

Study lead from RMIT, Dr Juliet Watson, said while some examples of women receiving supportive responses were uncovered, incidents of harassment were frequently disbelieved or not taken seriously.

“Women told us about staff who dismiss their experiences as misperceptions and tell them to ignore it,” Ms Watson said.

“But if a woman is perceiving some behaviour as violent, she should have the opportunity to decide what action is taken. Staff should then respond in a way that ensures she feels safe.”

Many of the female clients staying in these facilities have previously survived violent trauma.

The study, commissioned by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), reviewed Australian literature and conducted in depth interviews with women who had experienced gender based violence during or due to a stay in a mental health inpatient unit in Victoria in the past five years.

Workshops were then held in with 42 Melbourne  service providers, which included mental health nurses, to present the findings from the interviews and receive feedback.

The organisation’s CEO Dr Heather Nancarrow said there was an urgent need for trauma-informed care.

“This is a profound breach of trust by our health system,” she said.

“Mental health service providers need training and support. It’s crucial they understand the impact their actions might have on women with a history of sexual, domestic or family violence.

“If women are to have access to safe, dignified and effective mental healthcare, we need to build a gender lens into hospital policies and procedures.”

Ms Nancarrow said while mental health facilities have introduced processes to protect inpatients from violence, the models most commonly used across Australia do not employ a gender lens, and as a result leave women exposed to gendered violence, including domestic violence.

“We need mental health facilities to place the agency of women at the centre of their treatment,” she said.

“This means consulting closely with each woman to build a plan of recovery that is sensitive to her history and respects her own judgement about what will keep her safe.

“Feeling safe is a requirement for getting well.”