Stigma in the Psychology Classroom: An Interview with a Professor

While sitting in my Psychology 101 class, I was curious as to what a professor’s point of view would be while watching the classroom as they teach psych to people who may not understand, or may stigmatize it. Here are the questions I asked and the responses my professor gave.

 

Q:  When discussing mental illness, can you tell who takes the information seriously versus who disregards the information?

A: I think sometimes it is easy to tell who is taking the information seriously and who might not be paying as much attention, or isn’t interested. Sometimes it’s pure body language that indicates this.  Sometimes it has to do with questions people ask, or if students approached me after class or send the emails to me. Often they indicate they found the information helpful or insightful, or it helped them understand something about either themselves or a loved one.

 

Q: Do you notice which students stigmatize mental illness when talking about certain disorders?

A: I would say I have gotten very skilled at recognizing when people are often times, accidentally, or inadvertently adding to stigma around mental illness. I talk about in every course I teach how we need to be careful that we don’t use mental health disorders as adjectives and while sometimes we all say things like “This is driving me crazy!“ terms like this are not helpful and can add to the stigmatization of those who have mental health issues. The word crazy is not a clinical word nor does it really tell me anything in terms of mental health, and it is not a word I would even use to describe people who are experiencing mental health disorders. A lot of the words we use can be harmful even if they aren’t accurate.

 

Q: Can you tell when students are willing to learn about mental health disorders versus when students do not care? 

A: I think in each class I always see that there are a handful of students who are the most interactive and the most engaged, however I do think the vast majority of people are somewhat interested who take these courses (General and Abnormal Psychology). I often see that even when people aren’t interested before the course begins they soon realize how much this course has to do with being human and understanding other people...I think then more and more people get interested. There are always a few students who seem disconnected from class or not really invested, and there’s not much you can really do about that. However my hope is that them participating in the class at least by showing up and doing the assignments and taking exams, they garner some insight or some perspective that may help them down the line in their relationships, their work, or their self exploration and development.

 

Q: While in the classroom, do you notice how the atmosphere changes when discussing mental health disorders and the stigma that comes with it?

A: I do think that when I teach about mental health disorders there’s often times a little bit of tension in the room, which usually has to do with the lack of information most people have about mental health disorders, as well as it is hard to hear about other people suffering even when we don’t know them. I do think that as time goes on and as people learn more and more in my classes but also in general, there is less and less fear and less and less judgment. I think the initial fear and judgment can cause a lot of discomfort and potential stigma, but once there is more information and once people understand these are human experiences it doesn’t mean anyone is bad or less then; there’s a little bit more comfort and openness that can occur and as a result probably better learning.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiRwMXmueXlA...

 

Q: What mental disorder do you think students can understand and accept the most?

A: I think the disorder that students tend to identify with the most or at least understand has to be the anxiety disorders. Because anxiety is a natural part of our existing; those with anxiety disorders have an overabundance of this or expressing itself when it’s not necessary.  So, as a result that is a human experience people can connect with. However, since they are able to understand or think they understand this disorder, and I would add similarly with depression, a lot of times people will assume they understand it and make generalizations that are often times inaccurate. So I think anxiety and depression both seem to be the ones that people tend to identify with the most or understand the most. The risk is when someone knows a little bit about it and thinks they understand it in totality, when they may really only understand the service of it or how it’s impacted one individual. Every disorder affects people very very differently and so sometimes a little (limited) knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as they say. 

 

Q: Can you tell what students can relate to certain topics and when students are reluctant to learn? 

A: I do see that there are patterns to students who can relate information I share, or students who may not be as interested or are not as engaged. A lot of how I interpret their relating or engaging has to do with participation, eye contact, nodding to the information, sharing, as well as how much effort they put into their assignments. I do see that people’s grades tend to be higher when they feel more interested and invested in the course.

 

My psych professor, overall, has a positive response to students in their classroom responding to learning about mental health. Although that is not always the case, these responses show how well students do overall in a psychology setting and that the more we learn about mental health, the less stigma there is in the world. I highly suggest if you have the opportunity to take a psych class, go for it! You’ll be surprised how informational and even relatable the content is.