Project PERFECT - challenging stigmas associated with mental illness

Project PERFECT (‘Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts’) is an interdisciplinary research project based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and funded by the European Research Council. It is investigating to what extent cognitions that are inaccurate in some respect have benefits as well as costs. These findings have important consequences for philosophical models of mental health, as well as informing clinical interventions in a way that supports a unified and coherent sense of agency. 

For this post on World Mental Health Day, Project PERFECT Research Fellows Dr Kathy Puddifoot and Dr Sophie Stammers describe two projects they are currently working on that challenge stigmas commonly associated with mental illness.

Collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation 

The first project, led by Kathy, is an exciting collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation (MHF). One of the goals of the charity is to challenge the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Research conducted by Kathy has identified the numerous ways that implicit bias and stereotyping of people with mental illnesses can lead to misperceptions. Kathy and the MHF are hoping to develop practical interventions to challenge stigmas associated with mental health conditions to reduce the misperception of people with mental health conditions as, for example, incompetent, dangerous or unreliable.

The partnership began with a joint workshop held at the British Library in June 2017. Kathy presented her research on implicit bias and stereotyping, and representatives of MHF introduced initiatives that they have implemented to challenge stigma, including forging a partnership with  the Scottish Government. The workshop facilitated a two-way transfer of knowledge between the Kathy and the MHF and started the process of developing ways in which Kathy’s research can be practically applied to challenge perceptions of mental illness. 

One focus for a future collaborative project will be the hardships faced by people with learning disabilities as a result of how they are implicitly and explicitly stereotyped due to their disability. In the June workshop, the MHF highlighted how people with learning disabilities are diagnosed with certain mental health conditions at higher rate than the general population, and that medical professionals subsequently frequently stereotype them in the clinical encounter as a result of their disability.

Kathy and the MHF hope that they can use Project PERFECT’s research – on ways in which people can be misperceived as a result of stereotyping – to develop practical interventions to challenge the stigma associated with having a learning disability to prevent undesirable outcomes.

Philosophy workshops with Mind in Camden 

For the second project, Sophie, in collaboration with Mind in Camden, will be leading a series of ‘Philosophy of Mind’ workshops for people with unusual experiences and beliefs, mental health service users and service providers, to start in late October. 

One of the aims of the workshop series is to provide an opportunity for people with unusual beliefs and experiences to engage in philosophical practice. Much of the traditional philosophical canon, and the psychiatric practices inspired by it, proceeds in a way that assumes that people with unusual experiences and beliefs are irrational and cannot be understood. The assumption is that they are unable to participate in reasoned debate, and as a result, those who may have dipped into philosophy of their own accord can be made to feel unwelcome. 

Project PERFECT’s research directly challenges this assumption. Whilst unusual cognitions are often distressing and can be associated with a psychiatric diagnosis, the project aims to demonstrate that cognitions with similar features are also found in the non-clinical population. 

Plausibly, everyone will have inaccurate or unusual cognitions at some point in their lives, and so these should not be a barrier to participation in philosophy. Furthermore, philosophical theorising is most useful when done from a variety of perspectives. The workshop series is open to people with unusual experiences and beliefs, and will proceed with the idea that these provide a valuable grounding for philosophical participation. 

It’s hoped that the workshop series will:

  1. Enable participants to develop conceptual tools to contribute to the reduction of stigma of mental illness and mental distress,
  2. Equip participants with shared epistemic resources to understand their unusual experiences as not radically discontinuous with perceived ‘normal’ cognition
  3. Enable participants to understand how such experiences might play a positive role in supporting a unified and coherent sense of agency.

Insights from the project will be relevant to researchers, policy makers and mental health advocates, with the aim of informing practice and policy regarding people with unusual or distressing experiences and beliefs.

Dr Kathy Puddifoot and Dr Sophie Stammers, Research Fellows on PERFECT