A private psychiatric hospital in Thousand Oaks has opened the county’s first ward exclusively for women, a controversial new wing staffed primarily by women and designed to tackle gender-related problems.
Although Charter Hospital administrators describe the third-floor unit as a haven for rape victims and women who suffer from depression or eating disorders, the hospital’s critics and competitors dismiss it as little more than a clever marketing gimmick.
Moreover, some psychiatric experts emphasize that women, even those brutalized by members of the opposite sex, should be hospitalized with men. To isolate women, they argue, only makes it more difficult for them to re-enter a society filled with men.
Charter’s directors agree that mixed groups may be helpful during the latter stages of therapy; however, they stress that initially some women need to move slowly in a secure environment. Eighty percent of the patients in the unit, which has operated for less than three months, have been victims of physical or sexual abuse.
“There are a lot of women out there suffering and I want to provide a safe place for them where they can come together and work together,” said Dr. Uzma Khalid, the unit’s founder.
Located near Westlake High School, Charter is one of four private psychiatric hospitals in Ventura County. The nine-month-old hospital reserves 21 of its 80 beds for women. Treatment costs about $825 a day.
Since the unit opened in early October, about 30 women have been counseled there. A usual course of treatment lasts about four weeks, with patients attending group therapy sessions that include psychodrama role-playing and other techniques.
On a recent autumn afternoon, patients gathered in one of the day rooms for a therapy session aimed at encouraging them to talk about painful experiences. Eleven women sat stiffly in a circle, some shaking their feet in nervous tension.
“When I was a child I was very lonely,” one woman began. In soft, soothing tones, the therapist pried, pushing the woman to recall being molested by her brother. Eventually the woman grew angry and started to cry. Someone passed her a box of tissues.
“I thought if I told anyone they’d think I was dirty,” she said.
“So did I,” another woman agreed softly. “I can relate,” added a third.
Although the patients’ conditions range from depression to bulimia, the experiences that lead to problems are often similar because the women are struggling in a male-dominated society, said Pary R. Banki, a Westlake Village therapist who conducted the session that afternoon.
Banki supports conducting group therapy sessions exclusively with women to allow patients to share their common experiences.
For example, when Joanne, 41, entered Charter after she lost a baby in her sixth month of pregnancy, she said that talking with other women who had lost children gave her great comfort. The miscarriage, Joanne’s second, catapulted her into a severe depression and eventually into Charter Hospital in October, where she became one of the first patients at the women’s unit.
“Men aren’t always the right people to be discussing these things with,” said Joanne, who asked that her real name not be used. “A man doesn’t know what it’s like to be pregnant and having a baby growing inside of you.”
The unit’s critics, including other private psychiatric hospitals in the county, contend that in the real world women and men must interact and should be forced to do so in therapy. That is the approach used at Vista Del Mar Hospital in Ventura.
“We haven’t seen enough of a need to develop a special program all around” women, said Lynn Matthews, the hospital’s director of marketing.
Fran Rogoff, clinical program coordinator at Pacific Shores Hospital in Oxnard, echoed those sentiments. She said most women’s issues, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence, also involve men and should be dealt with among men who may not pose the same threat.
Charter’s administrators do not dispute the need for its patients to have therapy in groups that include men later in their recovery. But some women, particularly those who have been victims of male aggression, want or even need to be in an all-female environment.
“There’s a need for women on a daily basis not to have to confront men and reawaken the hurts and pains that will make it difficult,” said Susan Anderson, the unit’s nurse manager. Some women, she said, are simply not comfortable discussing their experiences in front of men.
Khalid referred to national studies to underscore the need for a women-only unit. Statistics show that one in four women suffer from depression compared to one in 10 men. Furthermore, women are more often the victims of rape and incest, she said.
But Dr. Ron Thurston, president-elect of the Southern California Psychiatric Assn., fails to see the need for a women-only unit. “I hope people go to hospitals for better reasons than for being women,” he said.
Specialized units of this type are often little more than marketing tools, he said.
Although Thurston stressed that he was not referring specifically to Charter, he pointed out that public psychiatric clinics never need to advertise because they are overpopulated.
“The distortion is that we have mentally ill people sleeping under bridges while certain sectors of health care are advertising for services for women’s needs,” he said.
Five years ago, Ventura County had no private psychiatric hospital. Today, at least four are competing for people’s insurance dollars, Thurston said. That competition forces private hospitals to tailor programs to interest specific types of people.
“The commercial hospitals do direct advertising on the radio to people with insurance money to spend,” Thurston said.
Pine Grove Hospital in Canoga Park opened the San Fernando Valley’s first women’s unit almost two years ago. The 14-bed unit charges about $1,000 a day and offers programs similar to those provided by Charter.
Pine Grove patients “get exactly what we’re marketing,” said Donna Burns, program director and founder of the hospital’s women’s program. “It was my goal to develop a women’s program for women who would never come into a hospital environment because of the stigma.”
Like Charter, the unit employs an all-female nursing staff with male therapists available for those patients who request them.
“We believe that there should be a healthy balance, but we want to make sure that the nursing staff is female so they can come out at night in their pajamas and feel OK,” Burns said.
Governmental and private agencies that monitor psychiatry do not keep data on the number of women’s units throughout the country, but those in the profession believe that hospitals began specializing care toward women about five years ago.
The trend seems to parallel the evolution of women’s roles, which now include careers as well as primary responsibility for children and aging parents. It also comes at a time when medicine in general has become more specialized, often focusing on individual areas of study.
“Part of the advantage of grouping patients at all is having patients with common problems together,” said Dr. Nada Logan, chairwoman of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s committee on women and director of psychiatric education at the University of Chicago.
“There are certain kinds of symptoms, disorders and stresses that are much more common in one gender than in another,” Logan said. “Depression is very common in women. Eating disorders are much more common in women than men. Women still bear the vast majority of responsibility for care of dependent persons in families, be they children or be they elderly. That’s an enormous life demand.”
If specialized programs can make psychiatry more “user friendly,” more people may feel comfortable asking for help, said Joel Yager, a professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s School of Medicine.
“If, in fact, it attracts and provides good service to people who need it . . . then that’s a benefit,” Yager said. “If there are women who for whatever prejudices believe they’ll be more comfortable” in an all-women’s unit, “they’re more likely to go.”