Tens of thousands of sexual assaults and incidents have been reported in NHS-run mental health hospitals as a “national scandal” of sexual abuse of patients on psychiatric wards can be revealed.
Almost 20,000 reports of sexual incidents in the last five years have been made in more than half of NHS mental health trusts, according to exclusive data uncovered in a joint investigation and podcast by The Independent and Sky News.
The shocking findings, triggered by one woman’s dramatic story of escape following a sexual assault in hospital revealed in a podcast, Patient 11, show NHS trusts are failing to report the majority of incidents to the police and are not meeting vital standards designed to protect the UK’s most vulnerable patients from sexual harm.
Rivkah Grant, 34, was targeted by an NHS staff member and sexually abused, while Stephanie Tutty, 28, made similar allegations. Alexis Quinn, a former GB swimming star, alleged she was sexually assaulted twice – once when she was forced to sleep on a male ward and a second time on a mixed gender ward.
Dr Lade Smith, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called the findings “horrendous”, while shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said it was a “wake-up call” for the government.
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Among the key revelations were:
At least 19,899 sexual incidents were reported across more than 30 NHS trusts between 2019 and November 2023 – including staff assaults on patients and patients assaulting other patients
The figures suggest that just 982 – less than 5 per cent – of sexual incidents reported to hospitals were referred to the police over the same period
800 allegations of rape and serious assaults on women
Mixed sex wards, despite being banned a decade ago, are still in use across NHS mental health care with more than 500 reports of sexual assault since 2019
Just six out of 50 hospitals were able to prove they were meeting NHS standards aimed at protecting patients from sexual harm
Dr Smith told The Independent: “There is no place for sexual violence in society, which has a profound and long-lasting negative impact on people’s lives. Today’s horrendous findings show that there is still much to do to make sure that patients and staff in mental health trusts are protected from sexual harms at all times.
“It is deeply troubling to see that so many incidents in mental health settings go unreported.”
Mr Streeting said: “It will appal every decent person that these horrific crimes were committed against patients at their most vulnerable. The fact these have taken place in the NHS is chilling.
“Very serious questions must urgently be asked of hospital leaders, who have to explain why the vast majority of these incidents were kept from the police.
“The Conservatives promised to end mixed-sex wards in 2010, yet soaring numbers of patients are treated alongside patients of the opposite sex. Patients often find this humiliating and, as this investigation shows, it leaves women in particular vulnerable in hospital.
“The government must treat this investigation as a wake-up call and act against the soaring number of mixed-sex wards in the NHS today.”
Dame Vera Baird, the former victims’ commissioner, said attacks by people who were supposed to care for the vulnerable were particularly troubling.
“The results of this investigation are a national scandal,” she said. “The [figures on assaults] from staff on patients are the height of concern because it may mean that there is insufficient scrutiny and insufficient vetting of people coming into hospitals.
“These people are going to be let loose on the most vulnerable of people, whose testimony may not be believed when they say something.”
Sharon Brennan, from the patient charity National Voices, said the examples uncovered by The Independent were among the ”worst breaches of trust we have heard of”.
Our latest exposé comes as the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch prepares to launch a national inquiry into mental health care in England following a series of reports by The Independent over the past year.
Freedom of information figures show that patients are at risk from staff in numerous hospitals, with more than 300 incidents reported on patients over the five-year period.
Recalling her experience, Ms Grant told how she was sexually assaulted by an NHS staff member at Chase Farm Hospital in north London in 2016. Staff initially ignored her, she claimed.
She was then made to sleep in the same room the following night, she said, even though a complaint had been made to the trust and the staff member suspended.
Ms Grant says her trauma was made worse when she was then moved to a mixed-sex ward, making her too scared to leave her room due to the male patients outside.
“I have struggled with trauma since then and I’m scared of asking for help [from mental health services],” she said. “When I’m feeling bad, I don’t know where to turn to. You believe when you’re in a hospital, you should be safe. I’ve learned that there is no safety in mental health hospitals.”
Her attacker was convicted in June 2017 following a police investigation. North London Mental Health Partnership, which now runs Chase Farm Hospital, said it was “deeply sorry” for what had happened to Ms Grant and insisted the safety of its users was their top priority.
In another alleged case, Ms Tutty, a mother of two, told The Independent her harrowing story after seeking help from Essex mental health services having been raped in her youth.
Instead of getting treatment, she claims she was subjected to five months of horrific sexual abuse by a staff member.
A year later she says she was traumatised again after being admitted to another Essex-run unit, where a security guard sent her sexually explicit text messages, seen by The Independent. The police later said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute in relation to the alleged sexual abuse.
Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, which is currently facing a public inquiry into 2,000 patient deaths, refused to respond to questions from The Independent when asked about the serious allegations.
Our investigation shows at least 500 sexual assaults and incidents have been recorded on mixed-sex wards or mixed-sex communal areas within trusts since 2019.
Ms Quinn, a former swimming star and teacher, was admitted to Littlebrook Hospital in Kent in 2013 after seeking support from mental health services following her brother’s death.
Within hours of her admission, she claims she was sexually assaulted by a male patient after being placed on an all-male ward.
Ms Quinn immediately ran to tell staff who tried to send her back to the ward where her attacker remained, she claimed. Distressed and panicked, she was restrained and then placed in solitary confinement.
Ms Quinn said: “You know, I blame the system for putting me in that situation, for not safeguarding me – this is a systemic problem. I thought it was just me, but it’s not just me, it’s thousands.”
The trust eventually apologised. However, within months she was placed in peril again in a mixed-sex ward, where she alleges she was the victim of a second assault.
Kent and Medway Partnership Trust, which runs the hospital, said it continues to offer its “sincerest apologies” for the “unacceptable behaviour” she experienced in its care, and that it was fully investigated and acted upon at the time.
As part of our investigation, The Independent and Sky News uncovered thousands of allegations of sexual incidents, ranging from abuse and rape to sexually inappropriate behaviour or language across more than 30 out of 52 NHS mental health trusts since 2019. The scale of the scandal is likely to be even worse as figures do not include private hospitals where hundreds of NHS patients are sent to each year.
Among them was Nima Cass Hunt, who was groomed and abused in a Huntercombe Group hospital when she was 16. Her abuser, care worker Marcus Daniell, was jailed for 11 years in 2020 for his crimes. Ms Hunt warned that under-staffed mental health services are failing to protect patients.
“Nobody at the hospital looked or listened to obvious signs,” she said. “There is something terribly wrong with the protocols that intend to keep patients in mental health hospitals safe when patients are still exposed to sexual abuse despite obvious signs, indicators and even disclosures.” Former owners of the hospital, Eli Investments, were approached for comment.
Melanie Leahy told The Independent that staff in Essex failed to investigate her son Matthew’s claims of rape while he was an inpatient in 2012 – he died just two days later.
“It makes me sick,” she said. “I believe this incident led to the loss of his life. I believe this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
A report in 2019 by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found staff failed to take appropriate action in response to his allegations. The trust said in response it offers its condolences for Matthew’s death.
Meanwhile, in 2014, Gaia Pope, who was a victim of rape in her youth, reported sexual harassment while in a mixed-sex ward at Dorset NHS Hospital but staff failed to issue any safeguarding alerts.
Her cousin, Marienna Pope-Weidemann, said: “I believe the failures [to address her concerns] directly contributed to her death later that year. They took absolutely no action and they discharged her 48 hours later without any [support].”
Dorset Health Care chief executive Matthew Bryant said the trust acknowledges it should have done more to make sure Gaia felt safe in its care and ensure she felt her concerns were taken seriously.
In 2020, after the Care Quality Commission raised national concerns over sexual abuse in mental health services, the NHS set up guidelines under its “sexual safety collaboratives”.
Despite the known risks, NHS trusts are not meeting their requirements of the standards to this day, with just six hospitals providing evidence they have met the collaboratives’ guidelines.
Gemma Byrne, Policy & Campaigns Manager at the charity Mind, said the investigation’s findings were “horrifying” and called for greater accountability for trusts who are failing to address such serious sexual safety incidents.
Professor Charlie Brooker, one of the few academics in the UK who has examined the relationship between sexual assault and mental illness, told The Independent and Sky News there should be an inquiry into sexual safety in mental health wards.
He said: “It would be fascinating to see how many people came forward and wanted to give evidence. I won’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t several thousand.”
Professor Brooker said a big factor in the development of mental illness is sexual trauma, adding: “What is happening to these vulnerable people, these vulnerable women, is retraumatisation which seems to be occurring in an environment where they're [meant] to safe. They end up worse than when they came in.”
Eli Investments which owned Huntercombe Group said it was “saddened” by the allegations and regrets that the hospitals owned by the group failed to meet standards expected for high quality care.
NHS England said sexual assault would not be tolerated and said it was rolling out better reporting mechanisms and training for staff as part of its new NHS Sexual Safety Charter.
It said all trusts will have to appoint a domestic violence and sexual assault lead. However, it did not specify how it would monitor and hold trusts to account who were failing to meet its new guidelines.
The Department of Health and Social Care said NHS organisations have a responsibility to protect both staff and patients.
If you need to seek support for anything sexual that happened to you without your consent you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 500 2222, 24 hours a day, every day of the week.