I’ve just returned to university to start my second year. I began the week looking forward to a year that might suit my learning style better as it’s more focused on critical thinking and appraisal of information. I’ve also had my first experience of mental health specific lectures, which have given me a lot to reflect on and are the catalyst for this post.
Before I begin I must state that I don’t believe my university is intentionally causing stigma, nor is every lecturer/workshop leader ‘guilty’ of what I’m about to describe, but I do feel that my experience this week highlights problems. I also am conscious that the topic of stigma in mental health is such a giant topic, and many of the questions floating around my head of ‘WHY are we (society) so scared of talking frankly about this?’ are too big to be considered entirely in this post, so I shall stick to my university experience.
What happened? (Albeit, in my subjective experience)
My university, thankfully, is normally very good at challenging use of language that encourages stigma. Terms like ‘Mrs X suffers with bipolar’ and ‘Mr Y was a schizophrenic man I saw on placement’ will usually be noticed and corrected. That said, I’ve heard it be said and remain unchallenged in several sessions this week. I did challenge a friend on the matter and it was met with a response of ‘Oh’. I’m not sure if, when these issues were mentioned in our first year, people sufficiently understood the effect of this use of language. I suspect some felt they weren’t allowed to use the terms without understanding why it is reductionist and encourages a victim-projection into the client.
‘Them and us’ – I was very relieved, after the majority of a lecture had been spent referring to ‘them’ (as shorthand for people with severe and enduring mental health problems), when another student raised the point of the challenge of considering vocational rehabilitation for ‘them’ when it would contain so many people with different life experiences, never mind varying severe/enduring mental illnesses. The lecturer did validate this point, however I don’t feel it was sufficient after a whole morning where I felt this client group were being considered as a very separate group, that had to be handled with kid gloves and the therapist must have very low expectations of achievement. It felt like the client-centredness approach was entirely absent. For some people a successful OT intervention may result in a small period of voluntary activity each week, but for others this would be significant failure of the rehabilitation for that client. If the lecture had been discussing physical conditions I think the expectations of what an individual can achieve would be much higher. Of course, I am aware that for some mental health problems will prohibit a return to work, but unless we are brave enough to imagine people recovering enough to lead ‘lives worth living’ I fear the profession will not help people achieve the full extent of recovery that is possible for them.
I was glad that we were encouraged to share preconceptions about mental health problems and, for those that had been on a mental health placement, how they had changed after placement. As I discuss below I value an open and frank discussion, but this all felt one-sided. Yes, the point that fears that people with mental health problems were violent was discussed as unfair, but the point was not elaborated on to increase understanding about what the reality is. For those in the room that have this preconception all they now have to go on is the knowledge that one student doesn’t believe this is true, but no understanding as to the reasons violence may happen, or about clients that would only ever inflict violent acts on themselves, or even the many clients who will have significant mental health problems, none of which involve violent behaviour of any sort. This is a point I feel can only be delivered by service-users, to truly impart understanding of the reality of mental illness and how it influences behaviour.
My final issue relates to the ‘them and us’ issue raised above. The times I felt myself cringeing most in the lectures were when I felt that people with mental health problems were being patronised, either by staff or students. I’m not sure why anyone feels this is appropriate or helpful, but comments like ‘x struggled with ;, bless him’ are not ok and actively encourage stigma. If a soldier who had recently had a limb amputated was finding a self-care task challenging I seriously doubt they would be patted on the head and told, ‘ah, bless you’. I also sincerely hope if they were finding the same task difficult due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder they wouldn’t be treated in this way, but after this week I’m not entirely confident of this. Again, it feels like validation of the capability, resilience and skills of clients with mental health problems is not sufficiently present.
Am I more sensitive as an ex-service-user?
I actually feel that when mental health matters are discussed in an open and frank matter, without any trace of ‘tip-toeing’ around the subject, I am no more sensitive than any other person (and possibly far less than many people). I don’t mind if people ‘get it wrong’, I also don’t mind if people have strong opinions or judgements, so long as both they and I are able to have a discussion in which both parties can express their opinion and attempt to listen to, and understand, each other. I have delivered teaching to psychologists and counsellors in which I was asked directly if my self-harm had been manipulative or attention-seeking. This did not upset or offend me, it simply pleased me that people felt able to ask directly and listen to my response.
I struggle more when I feel lectures are delivered in a way that encourages stigma and misunderstanding, due to an overly sensitive and patronising delivery. I tend to go quiet rather than offer an alternative opinion, perhaps indicative of how unhelpful and silencing such an approach would be with clients.
I am mindful of the fact that I do find myself slipping into criticism of my university regarding a somewhat incongruent approach on their behalf. I have attended lectures that highlight the poor statistics for return to work for people with mental health problems after long period of sick-leave, and discussed intervention strategies that highlight the employer’s role in allowing an adjusted return to work. This is the first point in my life where I have been able to consider full-time work for 9 years, and the area of my life that still limits my performance is a very poor sleep pattern due to re-experiencing of traumatic events. Despite this I am about to embark on my second placement that involves a significant commute. While I function very well during the day I tend to have a few hours in the morning where I feel more vulnerable, almost like an emotional hangover from the night before. I have had several discussions with my university about these matters and feel slightly ‘not listened to’. It’s not my style to make a fuss and I’m also aware that I have internalised stigma and feel desperate to ‘just cope like everyone else’, but the reality is that it hurts to feel dismissed after taking steps to admit vulnerability.
Do I have a perspective that could help my fellow students?
One thing I am very clear on is that I have no experience of what it feels like to be an OT student that is nervous about working with people with mental health problems due to lack of experience, and for that reason this is the area I need to listen to those peers who are brave enough to admit the preconceptions and fears they have, to increase my own understanding of the issue.
I’m very conscious that my experience is just one of many people who have had mental health problems. Even if my peers all knew my views and experience this would simply give them insight into one person’s experience. That said, I feel the ‘power’ of my story is that these people know me primarily as a student, most people I know struggle to imagine me as the sectioned, destructive, despairing girl that spent several years in hospital. And that is my point, both those things are true. I am the person I am today AND I’ve had significant mental health problems that I almost didn’t survive, with many professionals feeling I’d always be detained in secure facilities.
What could be done to improve matters?
It’s very early days in the semester and I’m not sure if our teaching involves service-user involvement. If it doesn’t I think this is a significant oversight and will not challenge perspectives sufficiently. I know we have some lectures and workshops in the next few weeks delivered by people who I am confident will not teach in the manner that I feel silenced by, so perhaps I will contribute more of my perspective then.
Part of me would love to deliver a session, one that discusses the experience of a young woman with BPD who is intently suicidal and ends up sectioned and on 24hr-observations with all professionals at a loss of how to help, who eventually recovered due to treatment at a therapeutic community involving intensive psychotherapy, DBT and OT, and finally reveal that person is in fact standing in the room with them. I’m sure that at some point in my career I’ll be able to challenge views in this way. However, the time isn’t now, my priority is my own learning but I can’t help feeling my learning would be much less frustrating with a teaching programme that was less ‘fearful’ of upsetting the people with experience of mental health problems.
I considered editing this post in light of recent developments at university, but I feel it’s better to leave it as is, with this update. I’m really pleased to say the second and third weeks of term have included some fantastic teaching on a variety of psychosocial issues for occupational therapy practice. That doesn’t make my frustrations with the first week any less valid but I am grateful that the issues I raised did not continue. I’ve also had a lot of support from my tutor and placement coordinator to resolve my worries about placement, and used my own therapy sessions to explore why I find communicating my needs so difficult.