Department of Health

Sexual safety in inpatient settings – overview

Key messages

  • People with a mental illness are vulnerable to inappropriate sexual activity which can interfere with their care and wellbeing.
  • Any sexual activity in an acute inpatient unit is unacceptable.
  • Any sexual activity between staff and patients is an offence and should be reported to police.

People with a mental illness are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate sexual activity and behaviour, which can significantly interfere with their treatment and long-term wellbeing.

Any sexual activity in an acute inpatient unit is incompatible with the treatment environment and is unacceptable. Any sexual activity between staff and patients is an offence and should be reported to police.

Vulnerable patients

Many patients have past histories of sexual abuse, neglect or violence, which can increase their vulnerability to sexual assaults or harassment, and the re-traumatisation that such incidents cause. Sexual disinhibition is also a feature of some psychiatric disorders, which can make patients more vulnerable still.

Need for local policies and procedures

All mental health services are encouraged to develop local policies and procedures consistent with the Chief Psychiatrist’s guideline on Promoting sexual safety, responding to sexual activity, and managing allegations of sexual assault in adult acute inpatient units, in order to promote sexual safety and guide staff in preventing sexual activity and responding to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Guiding principles on sexual safety

The Chief Psychiatrist’s guideline is underpinned by a series of core principles, which include:

  • All people in a mental health service have the right to a safe environment free from inappropriate sexual activity.
  • All people have the right to participate in decisions about their treatment, care and wellbeing.
  • Interference with a person’s rights (including their privacy) must be kept to a minimum.
  • Sexual activity and sexual relationships in an acute unit are not appropriate to the treatment setting, and are not acceptable.
  • Sexual assault, abuse and harassment are potential crimes and are always unacceptable.
  • Area mental health services have a responsibility to provide comprehensive education and training to staff in gender-sensitive practice, sexual safety and sexual health.
  • Area mental health services have a responsibility for developing policies and procedures to prevent and respond to sexual activity, assault and harassment.
  • Consumers and carers should be involved in the development and review of local policies and procedures.

Reviewed 29 May 2015

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