Winner conquers social stigma

October 29, 2004

Many professors may feel pressured by the conflicting demands of their job, but Peter Beresford believes that he is the first to have taken on a professorship while receiving help for mental-health problems.

Professor Beresford, director of the centre for citizen participation and professor of social policy at Brunel University, this week won a National Conference of University Professors essay competition with his account of overcoming the stigma of mental illness.

Professor Beresford is open with colleagues and students about his long-term experience of mental-health services. He has sought help for anxiety, depression and agoraphobia from psychiatric hospitals, social workers and therapists.

In his essay, he voices excitement that his background was not a barrier to his promotion to professor six years ago. But he told The Times Higher that others may be less fortunate: "Let's be honest about this. The scale of stigma and stereotyping is massive. And public bodies like universities are probably no better at getting it right than any other organisation."

Professor Beresford admits that many people with mental-health difficulties would baulk at the idea of taking on a professorship, because the pressures are "massive" even for someone without a history of mental illness. "It is a treadmill of pressure. You are there in a leadership role, but there are heavy barriers in the way. There is an unresolved tension between management responsibilities and academic responsibilities."

But he argues that in some ways he is better equipped to deal with this sort of environment, simply because he has trained himself to ask for help.

He explains: "I think people like me who have been through this kind of mill have learnt how to look after ourselves. We know how to face up to the issues and set up systems for support."

In his essay, he calls for professors to act as a bridge between academia and the community, producing research that is more relevant to the people who will use it.

Professors must come down from their ivory towers, he argues, and rather than acting as "self-appointed experts" should seek to be accountable to the public.

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