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University halts mask training for mental health student nurses

  • 6 Comments

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.”

  • 6 Comments

Readers' comments (6)

  • Surely the purpose of the role play using masks is to challenge any negative perceptions students may have, not to reinforce them. RGU are to be congratulated on this initiative & I hope those who complained will see this as the positive educational method it was clearly intended to be.

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  • PC world gone mad again

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  • No, this looks rather weird. I get what the charities are saying about stigma.

    Why is using these masks in role play an unacceptable experience for MH students, but not adult students? The latter will still have to role play with tutors wearing them!

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  • In real life we do not need to portray so called normal people as anyone but themselves. The odd grimace that a mental health consumer presents is just that nothing more than a grimace. We should learn to respect and accept all people no matter where they are in their progression in life without resorting to belittling people with mental health deficits I personally feel that acting out the deficits of the mental health consumer is disgusting. Such educators need to return to school and learn how to educate in a professional manner.

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  • I have not seen the masks but I understand what the university is trying to do. However, that doesn't mean I think it is necessary. People are people whatever illness they are suffering from and anyone can suffer from a mental illness so why would they need look different to the teacher. The way a nurse interacts, responds and cares for patients does not depend on what the patient looks like. Just teach students about different behaviours and get them on the wards!

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  • mental health hits all measures of the social strata and shows no discrimination. i am not sure if masks are a good idea as they may be stereotypical of what a mental health type may look like.
    couldn't you invite a variety of mental health patients to talk as volunteers as this is a good way of listening to their story and can generate empathy and inside into the many dimension of mental health

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