Tackling mental health stigma in education

Monday 12-01-2015 - 12:56

Mental health stigma and discrimination is preventing students at Scottish colleges and universities from getting equal opportunities to education.

However a new project from NUS Scotland and funded by See Me, Scotland’s programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination, is set to target this with the aim of improving student life.

Stigma and discrimination can be the difference between a student with mental health problems completing their course with proper support, and having to leave education despite years of work.

Activism on and off campuses will recruit student ambassadors from student associations at three pilot institutions, Forth Valley College, Edinburgh College and the University of the West of Scotland. The project aims to create a better educational environment for all who can be affected by mental health discrimination, whether students or staff.

John Sawkins experienced discrimination after he was diagnosed with bipolar while working as a lecturer in the Highlands. Following his diagnosis he was told he could no longer share an office with his female colleague. The now retired lecturer, 66, said:

“Prior to becoming unwell I had shared an office with a female colleague. When I came back they told me new legislation had come in that meant a male and female couldn’t be alone together in a room. I went to the principal. He said to me he would tell me the truth off the record. He told me that someone at the college thought I might go mad with an axe. I can understand they would be thinking ‘what if something goes seriously wrong’ but the link between violence and mental ill health comes from ignorance.”

Heather McCartney began self-harming as a result of stress and anxiety caused by the pressure of studying. The 29 year old had to leave a French and Classical Civilisations degree at Glasgow University during her second year, after becoming unwell with her anxiety. She said:

“People thought I just wasn’t cut out for university, the student life obviously wasn’t for me. People only saw me as the illness, they didn’t see me for the person I was and they judged what I did based on that. If I couldn’t do something because I was ill, people just thought that was me, that was my personality.”

The new student ambassadors will work with the pilot institutions until next autumn, to find out what the issues related to stigma and discrimination are on campus. They will then work with their peers, the students associations and NUS Scotland to tackle issues, which could include policies, decisions around exams, staff and student behaviour and timetabling.

Vonnie Sandlan, NUS Scotland Women's Officer said:

“Students with mental health problems are entitled to education free of stigma and discrimination. We hope students with lived experience of mental health problems are empowered to change the policies, practices and behaviours that contribute to stigma and discrimination on campus. We want this to improve people’s experience of student life.”

See Me is building a movement of people and organisations all over the country whose collective action will help to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with poor mental health.

Judith Robertson, See Me programme director, said: “We are passionate about ending the stigma and discrimination that is unfairly attached to having a mental health problem. To do this we want people, groups and organisations from all over Scotland to come together and take action to challenge the issues where they see them. Educational institutions are the ideal place to teach people why it is wrong to discriminate against someone just because they are unwell. It is important for us to support a project which will improve the human rights of people in educational settings.”

To find out more about the project contact Laura Caven, Mental Health Campaigns Officer on 


NUS Scotland

Related Tags :

mental health,Scotland,Think Positive

More NUS connect Articles

More Articles...