The Mental Health Complaints Commissioner (MHCC) has held its inaugural learning from complaints forum on the topic of complaints and avoidable harms – ensuring sexual safety in acute mental health inpatient units.

Attendees joined us at the Art Centre Melbourne to explore key themes identified in the MHCC’s Sexual Safety Project and to mark the launch of the project report, The right to be safe.  

We undertook this project to review issues of sexual safety in acute mental health inpatient environments, as part of carrying out our function under the Mental Health Act 2014 to identify, analyse and review quality and safety issues arising from complaints. The aim was to examine the circumstances that contribute to consumers feeling or being sexually unsafe, and to consider best practice approaches for ensuring sexual safety.

Attendees took the opportunity to consider our recommendations relating to practices, guidelines, infrastructure, training and culture, and to explore the range of perspectives and partnerships required to address this significant avoidable harm.

Commissioner Lynne Coulson Barr said everyone has the right to feel safe, and to be safe, when accessing public mental health services. 

‘Sexual harassment and sexual assault are violations of people’s human rights that can cause immeasurable trauma and, along with other types of sexual safety breaches, are significant avoidable harms that must be addressed,’ Commissioner Coulson Barr said.

Commissioner Coulson Barr and Deputy Commissioner at the time of the project Ms Bee Mitchell-Dawson discussed the project findings and recommendations, and the implications for mental health services.

Dr Margaret Grigg, Acting Deputy Secretary, Health and Wellbeing Division, Department of Health and Human Services delivered the department’s response as the Secretary’s delegate, and Minister for Mental Health the Hon Martin Foley MP’s message was screened on the day, communicating the government’s commitment to develop a comprehensive sexual safety strategy to respond to the report’s recommendations.

Keynote speaker and National Mental Health Commissioner Professor Helen Milroy, former Commissioner on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, shared key learnings from the Royal Commission on prevalence and impacts of trauma for people accessing mental health services and risks of re-traumatisation through breaches of sexual safety.

Director of Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre Professor Jayashri Kulkarni put forward key considerations from the literature and research on women's sexual safety in acute mental health inpatient units and associated risks and impacts.

Emmy award-winning journalist Sara James moderated the event, with presentations and panel session including representation from the department, the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council, Tandem Carers, Women’s Mental Health Network Victoria and Victorian public mental health services. The forum also included representation from the Office of the Public Advocate, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, Transgender Victoria, Victoria Police, and Centres Against Sexual Assault.

‘One incident is one too many. This forum was a vital step towards creating a shared understanding of the issues, and achieving a shared commitment to preventing these significant avoidable harms in mental health services,' Commissioner Coulson Barr said. 

The right to be safe report and summary are available here.