Another day, another story about the harmful depiction of people with mental health problems. But it’s not Halloween, and far from being aimed at tasteless party-goers, these particular stereotypes are aimed at tomorrow’s mental health nurses.
The initiative, ‘championed’ by mental health nursing lecturer Inga Heyman from Robert Gordon University, has teaching staff wearing ‘Hollywood-style silicone masks’ to provide what the university describe as an ‘ethically appropriate…’ way ‘…to give our students experience of complex mental health situations’. Or, if you ask those of use with lived experience of mental health problems it’s anything from ‘strange and misguided‘, to ‘soulless, desensitising, and monstrous‘.
I don’t dispute that role-play is an important part of the clinical training process. We can’t go releasing untrained students straight into the (often scary) real world. But I’m extremely sceptical about how this process – which one might naively expect to focus on values such dignity, respect, and common humanity – might be aided by the introduction of these grotesque masks, which are clearly designed to shock and disgust.
Such depictions are damaging because of the insidious implication that people with mental health problems are somehow recognisably different to those without them. In fact – and this really ought not to be surprising – people with mental health problems just look like people. Some scary, some peaceful, some ugly, some beautiful, some interesting, some ordinary. Once you start suggesting that people with mental health problems have a certain ‘look’ then you cause all kinds of problems for those who don’t conform to the stereotypes. Such as those poor fools who naively turn up to a disability assessment expecting to be judged on their real-life challenges, only to hear remarks about how well they’re dressed and how recently they’ve washed. Mental illness can strike anyone, and perpetuating cheap stereotypes only hinders the recognition of that pretty basic fact.
To counter the myth, the #MHmasks movement, like the #Mentalpatient one before it, seeks to reclaim the human face of mental illness, by sharing the many and varied faces of real people who have experienced mental health problems. But as heart-warming as the gesture – and don’t get me wrong, every time someone shares a photo I feel both solidarity and pride – I’m not sure it’s necessarily ideal. Because, again, it concentrates on appearance, and not all of us are comfortable with our appearance.
But there’s a bigger problem here, one that speaks to larger concerns around mental health care generally. Why would anyone think appearance matters? It’s entirely irrelevant to judging a person’s mental health, and it’s entirely irrelevant to showing good, compassionate care. And shouldn’t that be the primary focus for teaching our next generation of nurses? By investing in these masks, Robert Gordon University may well be unfurling an ‘education first‘; but it’s not one that’s needed. And it leaves me worrying about the underlying attitudes within a setting where you’d expect a lot more in the way of insight and respect.
Following a social media outcry, Robert Gordon University have issued a statement, apologising for causing offence, and promising to curtail use of the masks until they have carried out a review, which they say will consider views from those with lived experience of mental health problems. Although I still have some reservations, Robert Gordon should be commended for the speed of their reaction. More than anything, however, I hope this will present an opportunity for dialogue and learning. It’s vital that everyone understands that people with mental health problems can appear entirely articulate – sometimes even surprisingly composed and humorous – yet still be experiencing tremendous and very dangerous levels of anguish. We need to train our health care professionals to recognise the subtleties of suffering, not distract them with props and gimmicky.