It is no secret that the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology, and the university at large, has been accused of minimising the concerns of those living with trauma. Honi Soit recently reported on the School’s approval of a virtual reality experiment with implied sexual assault that students were offered to undertake for additional credit. The experiences of one former tutor of a third year psychology unit highlight that such questionable practices may extend past the lab and into the classroom.
Kayla Greenstien is a psychology PhD candidate and former tutor for PSYC1001, 1002, 3016 and 3018 at The University of Sydney. During a pre-tutorial meeting for unit PSYC3018, she was told of an interactive “roleplay” activity that was to be conducted at the start of a tutorial on psychosis.
“I immediately felt my stomach drop. I felt a heaviness from disbelief — it was hard to comprehend what I was hearing because the activity immediately seemed like a bad idea.”
The bad idea was to proceed as follows: the class would be divided into ‘Group A’ and ‘Group B’, with the tutor assuming the role of a staff member in a mental hospital.
Students in Group A would be roleplaying the part of patients in this hospital. The tutor was a disgruntled staff member who had decided to plant and detonate a bomb in the hospital as revenge. The tutor would show students where they had hidden this “bomb” within the room, and students would then be tasked with convincing their counterpart in Group B that emergency services should be called to prevent disaster.
Students in Group B would be playing psychologists in the mental health hospital, and were about to conduct a routine daily interview on the wellbeing of a patient admitted with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
The punchline was supposed to be that the tutor has removed the fake “bomb” prop from its hiding place without either group noticing, and hence, both groups are firmly convinced of their “beliefs”. A guided class discussion followed the scenario.
Fundamentally, such a roleplay activity makes a mockery of what is often a terrifying experience. Students of PSYC3018 reported that the activity was not taken seriously in all classes, and by tasking students to act as if they have a mental health condition in this joking manner, the patient and their experience are reduced to a stereotyped charade.
The unnecessary use of a “bomb threat” delusion plays into the existing stigma surrounding the experience and presentations of psychosis and psychotic episodes: distortions are not completely spontaneous occurrences with no bearing in reality, and those suffering from psychosis are not necessarily violent or dangerous.
It also should not need mentioning that a bomb threat from a disgruntled employee is not something to make light of as a delusional belief, in the context of the very real violence that is committed on university campuses and elsewhere.
The tutorial guide describes that the learning objective of the activity is “to demonstrate to the students some of the basic difficulties in using CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] to treat psychosis (or any other extremely rigid, strongly held belief, for that matter).” However, Greenstien notes that PSYC3018 is not a clinical skills class, nor does it teach students how to deliver CBT.
She was given the additional justification that the activity would prompt students to empathise with the experience of psychosis, and of treating psychosis. However, Greenstien identified a key flaw in this logic:
“I feel this activity (erroneously) assumes that empathy is knowing what an experience is like for someone else. I think it’s quite important to first recognise that as psychologists…we won’t ever know what it’s like. And if we are trying to better understand the experiences of others, which is really quite a different framing to trying to ‘help’ people, if we are trying to understand the phenomenology of mental health conditions, we must listen to first person experiences of that condition.”
It is also significant to note that despite USYD’s countless emails and alerts about campaigns to “destigmatise mental health”, Greenstien was immediately shut down when she attempted to voice her concerns prior to the implementation of the “bomb threat delusion” activity. She later discussed her perspective on social media, both as an academic and as an individual with lived experience of mental health issues. At the same time that students were reaching out to express their support, and share that they had also felt terrible whilst participating in the roleplay, faculty continued to defend the exercise and another admonished her decision to speak about it online.
When contacted for comment, the University said “It is based on evidence that experiential learning facilitates learning outcomes. Students report finding the activity highly useful for better understanding the challenges people living with mental health problems often face.”
It is unclear if the activity will be included in future iterations of the unit. The dismissal of Greenstien and others’ concerns, as well as the activity itself, are ultimately indicative of what Greenstien notes is “the deeper philosophical divides in psychology as a whole. It is a divide on epistemology.”
Greenstien finds herself amongst a growing number of psychology professionals who emphasise the importance of centering lived experience in education, research, clinical practice and policy settings. She stresses that genuinely destigmatising mental health requires the decolonisation, demedicalisation and depathologising of psychological conditions.
The oldest school of psychology in Australia is starting to show its age. If it wants to contribute to destigmatisation, this author feels that taking the time to listen to those with lived experience would be a good place to start.