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University Withdraws "Stigmatising" Masks Used In Mental Health Training

Robert Gordon University has stopped using rubber masks made by Hollywood prosthetics experts after it received complaints.

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A university in Aberdeen has stopped using latex masks made by Hollywood prop designers to portray mentally ill people.

Robert Gordon University said on Sunday that it will no longer use the masks, which were worn by tutors in roleplay sessions meant to simulate a real mental health ward.

Just three days earlier the university announced that its School of Nursing and Midwifery had bought the masks to give students some realistic experience before they go on ward placements. The tutors didn't just wear the masks, but wore a full outfit and assumed the character of an in-patient.

But the university said it was stopping using them for now while it reviews their effectiveness, adding that it didn't intend to add to the "stigmatisation" of people with mental health problems.

This is "Sheila", a victim of physical and sexual violence as a child, who has an anxiety disorder.

"Jim", a labourer and father of three who suffers from a bipolar disorder and is "supported by methadone maintenance for a substance abuse problem", looks like a Dr Who villain.

Speaking to the BBC last week, lecturer Inga Heyman explained how the masks were supposed to work:

The educator behind [i.e. wearing] the mask has also worked in clinical experience, so we can add some quite subtle, little things that characters might do which can make it really real. So, how a character might react. So what the students get is reality.

See Me, a charity which campaigns to end mental health discrimination, was one of the bodies that complained about the use of the masks. It welcomed the reversal, but said:

However we are very concerned that the visual appearance of the masks has the potential to increase the stigma associated with mental illness by reinforcing negative perceptions, not only in the general public, but also in the next generation of mental health professionals.

There has been a strong negative reaction to the masks and we regret the public's reaction was not fully considered.

We will be visiting Robert Gordon University in the near future to discuss this issue and we welcome the opportunity to work with organisations to ensure stigma and discrimination is addressed appropriately within the mental health curriculum.

In a statement, the university said:

It was not our intention to add to the stigmatisation of people with mental health problems; in fact we continue to see simulation and role play, which includes the use of volunteer patients and actors, as a useful part of our teaching, particularly in helping students gain a comprehensive understanding of the impact of stigma.

We intend to review our use of masks by further evaluating their acceptability and effectiveness and will again involve a wide range of stakeholders, including people with lived experience, as we have done to date in developing this approach.

Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Patrick Smith at patrick.smith@buzzfeed.com.

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