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Nearly 20,000 reports of sexual incidents at NHS mental health hospitals in last five years

An investigation by The Independent and Sky News has uncovered around 20,000 reports of sexual incidents at NHS mental health trusts in the last five years.

A freedom of information request by the two newspapers has revealed that between 2019 and August 2023, there were 19,889 new sexual assault and harassment complaints involving patients and staff across 30 NHS trusts. However, only 95 of these cases are believed to have been reported to the police.

Multiple victims and their families have come forward to tell their stories, including Alexis Quinn, who was sexually assaulted repeatedly while receiving inpatient care at mental health hospitals in Kent.

Woman committed to safeguarding moved to a mixed-gender mental health ward

In a Sky News podcast, Alexis explains that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward after she sought help from her GP following the death of her brother. Alexis is autistic and was experiencing heightened sensory perception, but she was undiagnosed at the time.

She was initially due to stay in hospital for just 72 hours, but she was sectioned and detained under the Mental Health Act for nearly four years after being misdiagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

When there weren’t enough beds on the female ward, Alexis became the only female patient on an all-male ward. Here, she was sexually assaulted by a male patient.

Alexis made a complaint and Kent and Medway NHS Trust committed her to safeguarding and moved her to another hospital, but she was placed in another mixed-gender care setting where she was assaulted again by a male patient. Neither of Alexis’ alleged attackers faced criminal action.

Alexis was so distressed by her experience on a mental health ward that she escaped the hospital with the help of a retired GP and a teacher. She travelled to Dover, boarded a ferry to France and then flew to Nigeria where she started a new life.

Kent and Medway NHS Trust has offered it’s “sincerest apologies” to Alexis, and says it has improved the care it delivers over the last 10 years, as well as “eradicating mixed sex wards” and “significantly reducing” restrictive practices.

One woman repeatedly abused over a five-month period

Multiple mental health patients have now come forward to tell their stories of being abused by male members of staff.

Stephanie Tutty told Sky News and The Independent that she was repeatedly sexually abused by a male staff member at Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust over a five-month period.

After a two-year investigation, Stephanie said she was told by the police that her case could not proceed due to a low likelihood of conviction.

Rivkah Grant says she was also assaulted by a male healthcare worker while on a female ward at Chase Farm Hospital.

Despite staff being told about the incident, Rivkah was then moved to a mixed-sex ward. Her attacker was convicted in 2017.

Only six NHS mental health trusts have shown evidence of implementing sexual safety protections

The investigation has revealed that there were more than 500 allegations of sexual assault and rape in mixed male and female NHS England psychiatric inpatient settings, across more than 20 trusts.

In 2020, the NHS set up new guidelines to protect mental health patients from sexual abuse after the Care Quality Commission raised concerns. However, Sky News says just six trusts provided evidence that they are meeting these guidelines.

NHS England says it has now advised all trusts and local health systems to appoint a domestic abuse and sexual violence lead to support patients and staff to report incidents.

The Department of Health and Social Care says it is “working closely” with the NHS to ensure that all mental health patients receive “safe, high-quality care” and are looked after with dignity and respect.”

The need for systemic culture change

The shadow health secretary Wes Streeting described the investigation as “chilling” and says he now wants to know why “the vast majority of these incidents were kept from the police and why mixed-sex wards continue to be so widespread given the risk to patients.”

But Alexis says: “We shouldn’t focus on prosecuting vulnerable psychiatric patients who were likely detained for the disinhibition that probably causes a lot of the ‘violence’.

“It’s about the need for systemic culture change and adequately resourcing and supporting distress.”

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