Our mental health system’s failure to uphold women’s rights to dignity, safety and respect must be addressed

In Victoria, the current mental health system services fail to uphold women’s rights to dignity, to safety and to respect, according to findings acknowledged by the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System report.

Outlining many systemic failings, the findings rightfully point out that current access is inequitable and that even today, incidences of gendered violence in mental health facilities are common.

Reforms to uphold basic human rights are imperative. No one should be denied access to basic healthcare provisions when vulnerable due to lack of service safety.

Such inequalities must be combatted, with the whole system rebuild focussed on eliminating gendered harassment and violence while championing the safety of women. Given the $3.8 billion dollar investment into rebuilding by the State government, these inequalities cannot remain unaddressed. Particularly given that trauma is often a catalyst for poor mental health to begin with. Experiences such as domestic violence, assault and sexual abuse are often reasons for first consumer presentation and a threat of compounded trauma and subsequent suffering is gravely inadequate.

My experience of the public mental health system is multi-faceted.

I have been a consumer on a locked ward. I have also been employed professionally as part of care delivery teams who aimed to enhance systemic advocacy, education and support. Both roles were challenging, overwhelming and riddled with complexities to navigate due to current systemic failings.

In public psychiatric units, gender safety areas do exist. However, in effect, all they do is give a patient swipe access to lock themselves into a restricted area within an already confined space. That is not therapeutic. Asking women to lock themselves in rooms is never a satisfactory way to deal with gendered violence being inflicted on some of our most vulnerable, whilst they are trying to access treatment to recover.

This month Cabrini Hospital has opened a new women’s only mental health facility. One of their key focuses is on women recovering from trauma – be that sexual, gendered or family violence. Mental Health advocates with systemic knowledge have welcomed the move. This is public acknowledgement that locking traumatised and vulnerable women into inescapable and volatile situations while trialling sedative medications can, on occasions do more harm than good.

If such facilities were extended to public patients, it may give some women a fighting chance to recover. No one should be denied access to healthcare. Far less still should they come out in a worse position than when they entered. Furthermore, if inequality and gendered violence weren’t so commonplace and socially acceptable in the broader community, it might not be as rife in our healthcare systems.

Still, creating trauma-informed, safe spaces that actively nurture recovery is only part of the problem. Victoria needs an education revolution.

Change is cultural and must start with strong leadership and quotients. Women deserve to be safe, in healthcare settings, in their workplaces and in society. Contractual conduct agreements need to be stringent. Professional accountability needs to be prioritised. Complaints processes and patient rights need to be championed. But perhaps most importantly no one should ever be punished for calling out inequality. A good start would be greater assurance of access to forensic beds for those who need access. There is much to be done for progressive change to be implemented, then re-evaluated and refined.

While I congratulate the publication of the Commission’s findings, I refuse to celebrate their contents. The submissions that went into this report are a blight on the historical treatment and inexcusable neglect of Victorian women.

The real work – the changes, the addressing of inequalities and how these will make tangible differences in terms of progress, remains to be seen. Until such time as these can be proven, the efforts and investments made into this Commission are merely tokenistic and wasted. I implore common decency to prevail and never again allow women to be so drastically short-changed. The time for change is now.

Originally published by Women’s Agenda on October 15th, 2021.

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