Bianca was first raped three days before she sat her HSC trials. The same man attacked her again later that year and again two years after that assault.
She did not tell anyone about the first rape because she did not know where to go.
“I became depressed and anxious, I was hyper-vigilant all the time,” she said.
Bianca, now 27, said she struggled to find appropriate treatment and support for 10 years, and over that time was repeatedly misdiagnosed and made to feel ashamed by the medical profession.
Then six months ago, she started treatment with Wollongong-based consultant psychiatrist Karen Williams, who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Bianca says the specialized trauma care she received has saved her life.
Fortunately, Dr Williams says, a new all-female mental health facility for women with PTSD caused by domestic, family and sexual violence – set to open in Wollongong – may mean others in Bianca’s situation will receive the right help much sooner.
New center, new hope
For years Dr Williams has been part of a push led by the Illawarra Women’s Health Center to see the creation of a dedicated Women’s Trauma Recovery Center.
That project was granted $ 25 million for a five-year program in the recent federal budget.
But Dr Williams said she also saw a need for inpatient services to treat women, so she contacted Ramsay Mental Health Australia director Anne Mortimer, explained what she was trying to achieve, and asked if the private health service could give her “just one ward” .
The result is Australia’s first all-female, trauma-informed, mental health facility, which is due to open in August.
The 43-bed unit will offer dedicated treatment of complex PTSD among women who have suffered domestic and sexual abuse.
Ms Mortimer has asked Dr Williams to lead the new hospital.
‘I had a whole path of destruction’
Bianca said if she had been able to receive appropriate trauma care – with access to all-female therapy groups – years ago, her life may have been different.
“I was misdiagnosed with anxiety, depression, BPD [borderline personality disorder]bipolar, “she said.
“I was told I was just a ‘sensitive person’ by professionals who did not understand why my behaviors and emotions were the way they were because I was raped multiple times.”
She cut and burnt herself and repeatedly overdosed.
“Once I started getting the proper treatment… I started looking after myself and prioritizing myself and understanding that there is nothing wrong with me.”
‘Game-changer’ for women
Ramsay Health is spending about $ 8 million to renovate a disused rehabilitation clinic in Thirroul just north of Wollongong for the new hospital.
“I think it’s going to be a game-changer, it’s going to offer a completely different style of therapy,” Dr Williams said.
She said women and children who came to her for treatment had often previously been forced to share the space in a PTSD group with men who could potentially trigger their PTSD.
“You could imagine the survivor of rape being in a group with a big burly policeman or soldier – they are not going to feel comfortable in that setting and therefore the treatments are not always helpful,” she said.
Psychologist Merrylord Harb will lead the hospital’s group work and said it would be a space where women could feel safe, worthy, have trust and choice.
“The programs are designed to help women understand their experience and what they have been through, they are trauma informed from the beginning, middle and end,” she said.
“These are normal women who are going to be given the opportunity to find themselves and grow themselves.”
Hopes for future public beds
Initially the facility will be private and available to women with private health insurance, but Dr Williams said she was very hopeful of a public-private collaboration in the future.
“We all acknowledge it would not be fair or equitable that people who do not have money can not afford it, but we have to start somewhere,” she said.
“At this stage where we have nothing at all we are happy to have this to show that it works to prove that the concept is important and worthwhile and using the results to argue this should be available to all women around Australia.”
Bianca said it should not have taken 10 years for her to find the care she needed.
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