A university in Aberdeen has stopped its tutors from using prosthetic masks to teach nurse students, following concerns from charities that the physical appearance of them add to the stigmatisation of people with mental health problems.
Robert Gordon University said it will conduct a review into the use of its masks – which tutors wear alongside full costume to portray patients with different conditions – to evaluate their “acceptability and effectiveness”.
It said this would involve consulting with a range of stakeholders, including mental health awareness charities which had raised concerns and people with mental health conditions.
“We believe this [using masks] enables us to get students to challenge their own thinking and be better nurses for that when they qualify”
Professor Ian Murray
While this is ongoing, the university will not use the masks with its mental health nurse students, however it will continue to use them with its adult nursing course as part of the review, it said.
Mental health awareness charity See Me welcomed the review, adding that it was “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”.
The three masks, which in total cost £4,000, were introduced by the university because it had identified ethical issues around using actors and patient volunteers to teach students about complex or sensitive issues.
“We have extensive experience of using patient volunteers but there are some issues that it’s not appropriate to use actors or volunteers for,” said Professor Ian Murray, head of RGU’s school of nursing and midwifery.
“Also, having lecturers use the masks gives you control over how the session goes and allows the lecturer to respond to the student in a way that volunteers or actors wouldn’t be able to,” he said.
“We are fully committed to educating mental health nurses whose sole focus is on improving the quality of life for people with mental health problems and apologise to anyone who took offence”
Robert Gordon University
He told Nursing Times he was “disappointed” by the general public’s reaction to the masks and confirmed there had been no objection to their use from staff, adding that students had also found it to be a positive learning experience.
He said: “If universities are not able to innovate and push boundaries in relation to teaching, one has to question what our purpose is. Clearly our purpose is to be innovative and develop students who are critical thinkers. We believe this [teaching method] enables us to get students to challenge their own thinking and be better nurses for that when they qualify.”
Professor Murray added it was “frustrating” to see people join a “bandwagon that is critical without fully understanding how the masks are used”.
A spokesman for Robert Gordon 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 also want to affirm that we are fully committed to educating mental health nurses whose sole focus is on improving the quality of life for people with mental health problems and apologise to anyone who took offence.”