More than 1,000 patients sexually abused on NHS mental health wards

NHS patients ‘have been sexually abused more than 1,000 times’ on mixed-sex mental health wards in the last three years, shock figures reveal

  • Statistics show 1,019 reports of mixed-sex sexual assaults made in 2017-2019
  • Many NHS boards have policies which dictate people stay in same-sex wards
  • But overloaded services cannot always stick to the rule and make ‘breaches’ 

More than 1,000 sexual assaults have been reported on mixed-sex NHS mental health wards in the last three years, figures show. 

There were 1,019 reports of alleged sexual assaults between men and women in England from April 2017 to October 2019.

Although trusts report following policies on single-sex accommodation, men and women in mental health units still mix in communal areas or in overloaded wards. 

The data was given by 47 out of a total 56 mental health trusts in an investigation by medical news website the Health Service Journal.

It revealed that, of the abuse reports, 491 were considered serious enough for staff to refer them to safeguarding services, while just 104 were reported to the police.

Data from 47 out of a total 56 NHS mental health trusts revealed a total of 1,019 reports of sexual assaults between April 2017 and October 2019 (stock image)

All NHS hospitals are expected to keep patients in same-sex accommodation ‘except where it is in the overall best interest of the patient’, the NHS says.

But busy wards which have big workloads or uneven numbers of patients are not always able to stick to the rules. 

All are required to report ‘breaches’ in which mixed-sex patients are kept together without good reason.

Between October 2018 and October 2019 there were 21,624 of these breaches across England, including in mental wards and normal hospitals.

And patients inevitably mix with those of the opposite sex in communal areas such as gardens, lounge areas and corridors. 

All NHS treatment units, whether they are mental health units or hospital inpatient wards, are expected to keep patients on same-sex wards unless they have a good reason not to.

The NHS says this should be the case ‘to ensure the safety, privacy and dignity of patients is prioritised.’ 

Patients may have to undress to wash or go to the toilet while on a ward, so they should be kept separate from members of the opposite sex.

In some instances, the NHS says, patients may ask to be kept with patients of a similar age or medical condition, rather than the same sex.

But generally mixed-sex sleeping arrangements should be eliminated, it said. 

Busy units may be unable to meet this goal if they have too many patients.

Unjustified mix-sex sleeping arrangements are considered ‘breaches’ of policy and must be reported every month to the NHS.

Between October 2018 and October 2019 there were 21,624 mixed-sex accommodation breaches in England.

A Government-ordered review published in December 2018 recommended that the Government ‘tighten’ its definition of single-sex accommodation to ensure wards were ‘genuinely’ single sex.

A spokesman for the charity Mind said: ‘For many people, the reason they are being supported in a mental health setting is because they have experienced sexual assault.

‘They should be able to expect that they won’t be re-traumatised by their environment. This is why these wards have no place in a modern healthcare system.

‘It is also not good enough for wards to be meeting the technical definition of a single-sex space, knowing that people continue to be endangered.

‘If national guidance does not offer sufficient protection for people, then services must go above and beyond it to sufficiently protect people when they may be at their most vulnerable.’

The Department of Health and Social Care said it will soon publish a response to the review published in December 2018.

In a statement to the HSJ, a Department of Health spokesperson added: ‘Sexual abuse in the NHS will never be tolerated.

‘We take every allegation of abuse extremely seriously and we expect every report of sexual assault on patients or staff to be immediately investigated by trusts.

‘Men and women should not share hospital accommodation and we’ve cut mixed-sex accommodation breaches by over 85 per cent since 2010.’

Ministers promised to end the so-called ‘wards of shame’ in 2010 following a Daily Mail campaign to expose their indignity.

Many patients find mixed-sex wards dehumanising. They often have to share toilets or bathrooms with the opposite sex wearing little more than hospital gowns or night clothes.

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