This curriculum supplement, The Science of Mental Illness, offers an opportunity to provide accurate information to students about a subject that many people don’t understand and about which they have inaccurate beliefs. However, because of the potentially sensitive nature of the subject, it is important to be well prepared to deal with situations that may arise related to an individual’s experiences. We recommend that before starting this unit, you contact the school’s guidance counselor and school nurse to let them know that you will be teaching students about mental illness. Those individuals can help provide support to students who might need it or inform you of support services in your community that help people who have a mental illness. Identifying these community services or resources before you start teaching the supplement will be important if a student comes to you about a problem. If a student approaches you about a personal or family situation involving mental illness, work with these school professionals to encourage that student (and his or her family) to seek help from a family doctor or community mental health service.
Also, you might find that some students are apprehensive about studying mental illness. In some cases, students may be uncomfortable because they or a family member or friend has experienced mental illness directly. In other cases, the feelings may arise from cultural factors; some cultures do not speak openly about this topic. You can reassure these students that they will not be asked to discuss any personal situations or experiences with mental illness. Help the students understand that the goal of the module is to help students understand the facts about mental illnesses and the biology underlying them.
The Additional Resources for Teachers section lists some organizations that provide information about mental illness or referrals to state or local resources. The section also lists a suicide-prevention hotline. Your state, city, or county health department may also be able to provide information to you about services within your community.
Our society often attaches a variety of labels to mental illness—psycho, nuts, crazy, wacko, and so forth. These terms reinforce the stigma associated with mental illness. In class, it is more appropriate to use the term “person with mental illness.” Encourage your students to avoid the slang terms.
In everyday language, we often use terms related to mental illness in ways that don’t really fit their true meaning. For example, we often say that we are depressed when really we are just sad. We also refer to people as hyper—not necessarily because they really have ADHD, but just in reference to a person’s temperament. In this module, students will learn that mental illnesses such as depression and ADHD are specific illnesses with specific symptoms that define them. They are different from just sadness or inappropriate behavior. In the classroom, you should be careful about using terms such as depression in a way that does not fit the formal definition. Making this change can be a challenge because it is a habit, but using the terms incorrectly could confuse students.
Depending on your school’s policies and practices, you might wish to send a notice home to parents and guardians about the material that this module presents so that they are aware of what might be discussed. Reinforce the idea that this module is not intended to be used for diagnosing or treating a mental illness. The focus is on providing scientific information to students about a topic that is often misunderstood.