'Breaking the silence' : sexual victimisation in an old age psychiatry patient population in Flanders

Authors & affiliation

Anne Nobels, Ines Keygnaert, Egon Robert, Christophe Vandeviver, An Haekens, Lieve Lemey, Marieke Strobbe, Nele Van Den Noortgate, Gilbert Lemmens


Background: Sexual violence (SV) is linked to mental health problems in adulthood and old age. However, the extent of sexual victimisation in old age psychiatry patients is unknown. Due to insufficient communication skills in both patients and healthcare workers, assessing SV in old age psychiatry patients is challenging. Methods: Between July 2019 and March 2020, 100 patients at three old age psychiatry wards across Flanders participated in a face-to-face structured interview receiving inpatient treatment. The participation rate was 58%. We applied the WHO definition of SV, encompassing sexual harassment, sexual abuse with physical contact without penetration, and (attempted) rape. Outcomes: In 57% of patients (65% F, 42% M) SV occurred during their lifetime and 7% (6% F, 9% M) experienced SV in the past 12-months. Half of the victims disclosed their SV experience for the first time during the interview. Only two victims had disclosed SV to a mental health care professional before. Interpretation: Sexual victimisation appears to be common in old age psychiatry patients, yet it remains largely undetected. Although victims did reveal SV during a face-to-face interview to a trained interviewer, they do not seem to spontaneously disclose their experiences to mental health care professionals. In order to provide tailored care for older SV victims, professionals urgently need capacity building through training, screening tools and care procedures.

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