A combustible mixture

Mixed-sex wards are not conducive to a patient’s recovery to
full mental health, says Helen Waddell.

Through voluntary work for a mental health association and
from information I have gleaned from the press, it seems that mixed-sex
psychiatric wards have long been a bone of contention for many users of
psychiatric services.

suffering from mental illness are susceptible to disproportionate emotions,
and, as a user of mental health services, I can sympathise with the discomfort
that could be caused when same-sex wards are not available.

I spent seven weeks
in a single-sex psychiatric ward seven years ago, and as the only female
in-patient in her early twenties, I found myself the focus of attention from
some of the younger patients from a nearby male ward. I was suffering from a
severe depressive illness with psychotic symptoms (schizo-affective disorder),
which led to intense feelings of fragility and lack of control. Fortunately I
forged a very strong friendship with one young male patient, which provided me
with a semblance of security at that difficult time, but I was ill-equipped to
deal with any sort of romantic involvement.

Some of the early
risers from the male ward walked through the female ward on their way to other
parts of the hospital when many women were still in bed. In my transformed
psychological state, I found this somewhat disconcerting. The time between
sleeping and rising, when people have not yet donned their protective day
clothes, is a time of vulnerability and this can be heightened by mental

One day an older
male patient asked me for a kiss and when I refused, a younger male friend
encouraged me to oblige him. I attempted to give him a peck on the cheek, but
he unfortunately tried to turn it into something more intimate. I could have
done without this kind of attention. Any social interaction at a time like this
can seem threatening when you’re already overwhelmed by feelings and thoughts
within yourself, sexual advances doubly so.

Part of the reason
for psychiatric hospitalisation is to remove patients from the stress of general
social interaction, and to provide security and safety. Mixed-sex wards hardly
seem to remove any perceived threat or provide a remedy to the situation.

With some illnesses,
symptoms may lead to a lowering of inhibitions and resulting behaviour. On such
occasions, patients may later be horrified by their actions and feel
embarrassed or humiliated, or that they have not been protected. In such cases,
a mixed-sex ward is certainly not conducive to feelings of security. Patients
with a history of abuse are also very vulnerable and susceptible to discomfort
in such surroundings.

Mental health
service providers would do well to assess the detrimental effect of wards that
are mixed-sex in environments that are actually purported to aid recovery from
mental illness. On the contrary, these situations can be harmful to people with
little psychological protection and providers must remedy this if mental health
service users are to be given effective treatment.

Helen Waddell is a voluntary worker, freelance writer and a
user of mental health services.

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