Teaching teens about mental illness

  • Teaching teens about mental illness

Secondary school is where most major mental illnesses begin to present, and therefore teachers are on the front lines. However, mental illness is a difficult subject, more so when a teenager may fear being defined by their illness so much that they don’t seek help. This is made exponentially difficult given that symptoms of poor mental health are hard to identify in the most placid of people, much less the hormonally challenged.

As much as labels have a disproportionate allure and impact in a teenager’s life, teenagers tend dislike labels; they want to be individual rather than defined. Rebecca Slack, a PhD researcher explains that “Negative attitudes from the stigma of mental health problems are still very prevalent, and the perception of those who seek help for mental illness is that they are crazy, weak, flawed, or dangerous.” Teenagers are aware of this stigma and, just like adults, will try to avoid it by hiding their need for help.

Body vs. mind

In order to effectively address mental health with students in their teens and tweens, the time when perception and self-awareness are of paramount importance, teachers have to help dispel the stigma surrounding mental health. No matter that mental health issues have been referred to as ‘illnesses’ for almost thirty years, a cast on a leg and an eating disorder don’t weigh the same on the omnipresent teen social-life scale. Casts are signed and much discussed. A ‘disorder’ is behind-the-hand-whispers, silence, or exile. One illness tightens social bonds, while the other destroys them.

The challenge for teachers is coaxing adolescents into a conversation about a topic most people misunderstand or are incredibly fearful of. There aren’t too many access roads onto this expressway. Icebreakers are one simple option, however – a way to educate everyone that mental illness is just something that exists – it isn’t bad or good, just something that is present and needs to be acknowledged.

To discuss mental illness, it first needs to be ‘defanged,’ and Slack has just the technique to achieve this. When giving a talk on mental illness, she deployed the following trick: “I asked everyone to get to their feet and then for everyone who either had, or knew someone with, a mental illness to sit back down again. Amazingly, only two people were left standing. If it is happening to most of the people we know, it can happen to anyone. It is not an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ thing. It is a ‘we’re all in this together’ thing.”

Brain images

When an arm or leg is broken, there is a tangible expression of the fracture – the cast and the x-ray. Everyone immediately understands the problem, the treatment, and the likely outcome. In contrast, most psychological maladies are shrouded in mystery. People assume there is something wrong with the brain, but no one knows what it is, how it can be fixed, or often even if it can be fixed. Most students don’t really understand that it can happen to anyone, just like a sprained ankle.

This is where neuroscience can help. Research has shown that discrete areas of the brain light up, or react, depending on what its owner is doing. People working through a mental illness often have brains that are literally working differently from the brains of those without a mental illness. There is evidence to support this and it can be helpful to be able to give a person working through their own mental illness, or their peer group, a visualisation of this difference.

Showing students videos from people who have received CAT scans, or been in an MRI machine, is a great technique to help students understand the mechanical characteristics of mental illness. It can also increase empathy towards those with mental illness – whether it be themselves or a peer.

A Six-stage programme

Given the sheer scope of the issue, and its massively sensitive implications, the problem isn’t resolvable through mere catchy slogans and colourful, hip, anthropomorphic brain posters for students to identify with. Bearing this in mind, the government has ramped up efforts to tackle both mental health stigma in schools and improve teaching with that aim in mind. Pairing with the Personal Social Health & Economic Education (PSHE) Association, the government offers material for educators and administrators that can assist in shaping mental health policy for schools. Lesson plans are also available for individual teachers.

The Association has identified six basic components that need to be focused on in order to successfully satisfy the government’s stated goal. These components must be deployed in stages, the government suggesting over the course of five days. The aim is to create an ongoing conversation broken into discrete parts so students have an opportunity gradually to digest and decompress information, rather than be overwhelmed.

Two of these stages have been addressed above – the icebreaker that leads to group identification and providing a safe environment for young people to contribute and learn, and discussing stigma: what it is, how it affects lives, and how it relates to mental illness.

From there, an overview of mental illness, causes and treatment is required, followed by a presentation facilitated by teachers, counsellors, mental health professionals, and people presently dealing with mental illness. The next phase is to include activities, resources, debriefing, and encouragement to students, offering them support to be proactive about their own mental health and the health of their peers.

A serious matter

Teaching mental health to children isn’t a topic to be taken lightly. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Britain’s children. ChildLine, a toll-free helpline set up to aid children and teens, reported in 2014 that it processed 34,500 calls in 12 months relating to children aged 12-18 who thought about committing suicide.

Six thousand of that number had already tried to take their lives at least once and failed. For this reason, special care must be given when discussing those mental illnesses that have high rates of incidence among teens: such as depression, eating disorders anxiety, and addiction, among others.

In order to effectively address mental health in the classroom, there is a need for open informed conversations, and educators are perfectly positioned to chair these discussions and remove the venom from stigma’s bite.

Tools for educators

YOUNGMINDS IN SCHOOLS (http://ow.ly/Qexs0)

A charity committed to improving the emotional well-being of young people. Resources for teachers include videos, recommended reading, and evidence based advice on classroom practice aimed at improving mental wellbeing.



PSHE has a Resource Pack containing DVDs and lesson plans that cover topics ranging from emotional neglect to bullying, and sexual orientation. These teaching resources are available for purchase on their website.



The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust includes resources, as well as courses, that can be completed both online and in person on-site, in order to increase the educator’s mental health literacy.

About the author

Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog: http:// healthpsychologyconsultancy. wordpress.com/