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UHN's Dr. Gail Robinson is an internationally respected advocate in combating violence against women.
Co-Founder of Canada's first rape crisis centre, Dr. Robinson, a University of Toronto professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics/Gynecology, also helped establish the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario's task force on physician-patient sexual abuse.
In addition to many titles and accomplishments, the Toronto resident co-founded the Women's Mental Health program at the University of Toronto, and helped create the Metropolitan Task Force on Violence Against Women and Children, and was president of its board.
Dr. Robinson has won the YWCA Women of Distinction Award and the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada Award in the Champion category for her work in the field of women's mental health.
She has received the Alexandra Symond's Award from the American Psychiatric Association for outstanding and sustained contributions to women's mental health and the advancement of women.
Dr. Robinson, Medical Director of the Women's Mental Health Program at UHN, spoke with UHN News about her work in honour of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, also known as White Ribbon Day, which marks the École Polytechnique massacre on Dec. 6, 1989.
What motivates you in your work in addressing violence against women?
I believe that anyone who cares about women's physical and mental health has to be concerned about the degree and impact of violence against women.
Up to 50 per cent of women experience violence in their lives including sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking or elder abuse. A woman is more likely to be beaten, sexually assaulted or killed by someone she knows rather than any stranger. Every six minutes a woman in Canada is assaulted yet only 10 per cent report.
The women who report may go through court cases in which they are psychologically attacked and re-victimized. Those who don't report may suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. They may have impaired relationships, poor employment records and failure to succeed in life. They may resort to alcohol, drugs or become suicidal.
As a psychiatrist with a special interest in women's mental health, I see the consequences of the abuse as well as look at women in the context of the social stressors acting on them. I also believe that it is not enough to deal with individual patients, but it's also crucial to try to change the social structures and beliefs that perpetuate the violence against women.
What continues to inspire your work every day?
I keep going because violence has not ended and there is still much work to do. I continue to write and present at conferences. I serve as an expert witness in cases of sexual abuse by medical personnel, teachers, clergy and lawyers, and teach psychiatry residents about domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault. I also serve on the Sexual Assault Advisory Committee for the Toronto Police Service.
How does the Women's Mental Health Clinic aid those affected by violence against women?
The Women's Mental Health Clinic provides assessments and services for psychological problems resulting from violence against women including domestic abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and sexual abuse by authority figures.
We also offer consultations and short-term therapy for psychological disorders related to the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, including infertility, PMS, management of psychotropic medications during pregnancy, pregnancy loss, postpartum disorders and menopausal disorders.
What role does the healthcare system play in eliminating violence against women?
The medical profession can play a vital role in assisting women who are victims of violence. Unfortunately, these issues are often ignored.
Women are seen in the office or Emergency up to six times with injuries before any health care provider begins to expect she may be a victim of violence. Questions about past or current experiences of violence are rarely asked. Physicians may forget to ask, assume only certain patients are likely to be victims of violence, worry about embarrassing the patient by asking, or worry that, if the answer is "Yes", they won't know what to do. As a result, many situations often go undetected for many years.
Finding easy ways to ask questions about violence, making it a routine part of examinations, and having literature or posters that make it clear that doctors or staff are open to hearing about experiences of violence are important. Knowing about community resources is also essential.