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Sexual safety in all mental health settings is a fundamental right for service users

Sexual Safety Collaborative to have new standards to improve sexual safety on mental health wards

Sexual Safety Collaborative to have new standards to improve sexual safety on mental health wards


Picture: Alamy

‘I will never forget the terror and powerlessness.’ These are not my words, but those of an expert by experience recounting the acute care she has received over many years.

The service user, who wants to remain anonymous, was speaking at the launch earlier this week of the England-wide Sexual Safety Collaborative, commissioned by NHS Improvement.

Damning testimony

‘We were really vulnerable and no one stepped in to help us,’ she said, her testimony clear, damning and an undeniable call for immediate and significant change.

‘Why is sexual safety in some environments still so terrifyingly compromised?’

The aim of the collaborative, which involves wards or units in four out of five NHS mental healthcare providers in England, is to draw up new standards and improve sexual safety on mental health wards. 

Underpinned by agreed quality improvement methods so that developments and findings can be shared and meaningfully compared across sites, it follows similar initiatives in Scotland and New Zealand, and is being facilitated by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, which also runs the Reducing Restrictive Practice Programme.

Male hierarchy

Sexual safety while in care is a right of service users that is so fundamental that explanation seems unnecessary. So why is sexual safety in some environments still so terrifyingly compromised?

‘Being part of the Sexual Safety Collaborative, endorsed as it is at the highest level, is likely to tackle at least some of these issues’

There are several possible reasons.

Top of the list for some is the male hierarchy in the care system. Others include unconscious bias, lack of resources, and a reluctance or failure both to listen to service users and staff and to take the issue of sexual safety sufficiently seriously. How interrelated these issues are, I can only speculate.

Being part of the Sexual Safety Collaborative, endorsed as it is at the highest level, is likely to address at least some of these issues, particularly in the wards and units that are voluntarily involved.

But will it be influential enough to empower staff to tackle those environments, perhaps away from the initiative, where sexual safety is compromised most, so that service users, no matter where they receive care, no longer have to live their lives in ‘terror and powerlessness’?

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