Mental health stigma – thinking it through in the classroom

Mental health stigma – thinking it through in the classroom

As a PhD student I get to do some teaching within the Institute of Communications. I recently did my first ever session with Masters Degree students undertaking a module on The Politics of Personal Performance with Professor Stephen Coleman, who is also my supervisor. The module explores ‘the ways in which interpersonal communication is based upon a series of performances in which we play ourselves and come to recognise others through their performances’. It is based upon the theories of Goffman and Garfinkel. My session was on the topic of ‘stigma’ and drew on Stigma: Notes of the Management of a Spoiled Identity by Erving Goffman (1963). In my literature review I’ve found that most subsequent academic work on the topic refers back to this seminal work.

You can find the slides I used for the session here. I used the official trailer for the film Asylum (2005) as a prompt for discussion about how mental health stigma is often perpetuated in popular culture. You can find a useful critique of the role movies play in reinforcing mental health stigma by Dr Peter Byrne in Screening Madness. By way of contrast I showed the fantastic film made by johnjusthuman which has been shortlisted for a 2012 Mind Media award. The film employs all the characteristics of what empirical research has shown to be most effective in challenging mental health stigma – a personal story which shows a recovery journey in the context of a diagnosis (schizophrenia) which is commonly associated with being a life-long condition in the popular imagination. It is told from a first person perspective, with emotion and authenticity, and peppered with facts and figures about the impact of stigma on people experiencing mental distress. One student was most struck by one of John’s closing comments in the film in which he says that one of the most helpful things that someone told him, was to think ‘I have schizophrenia’ rather than ‘I am schizophrenia’. In the same way one might say ‘I have cancer’ rather than ‘I am cancer’.

The students in my session came from many different countries from around the globe and I’m sure I learnt as much from them as they hopefully did from me.

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