Talking and Teaching About Mental Health

According to a study done in the UK, “nearly one in ten young people . . . think that classmates with a mental health problem should not be at their school. The same proportion of respondents in the survey also feel that they would stop being friends with a peer who had a mental health problem” (

While I don’t know how well these statistics transfer over to schools in America, I do know that they point to a major issue that has developed among teens. I also know that:

One in five teens have experienced depression.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents.
Fourteen to 24 percent of young adults have self-injured at least once.

These statistics are important. Mental illness is a reality that will likely hit our classrooms on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming negative stigma attached to mental illness. Teens are often bullied, teased, or made to feel shameful about the issues they are struggling with. As a result, many students may retreat inside of themselves, disconnect from their peers, and find themselves in a quickly moving downward spiral.

There are a handful of initiatives that have been created to address mental illness in the school environment. The Stand Up Kid is a project in the UK that aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the classroom. You can watch their video below.

Moving to the USA, there is an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms that is  “dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.”

If this is a topic that interests you, I strongly encourage you to read their vision statement, It is incredibly poetic and powerful.

TWLOHA was a greatly inspiring source for me when I struggled with depression in my teenage years. Some of you may already be familiar with TWLOHA, or you may have seen
their shirts here and there. The neat thing about TWLOHA is  that they have managed to claim the “cool” factor among young people. By  marketing trendy, bold merchandise, they CP-White-Front_c3f9b387-f0ca-4d60-86a8-d669edb0722c_1024x1024appealshirt_blk_girls_back_1024x1024 to teens, while spreading their message of hope and reducing the negative stigma surrounding mental health. I think TWLOHA is a great resource for teens because it offers a “cool” approach to dealing with mental illness .

TWLOHA has launched an initiative called Storytellers that exists specifically for  high schoolers who want to address mental illness, provide hope for students, and reduce the stigma. Learn about it below.

Storytellers gives students the opportunity to tell their real, honest stories without fear of judgment or feeling out of place. This idea of telling our stories kind of connects with last week’s post (StorySLAM, The Moth, etc.). Sharing stories opens up a dialogue in the classroom that allows students to talk about the things that truly matter to them and affect their everyday lives. This is one way, as teachers, that we can connect students’ real lives to the classroom.

 Fears vs Dreams is another TWLOHA initiative that encourages an open dialogue and facilitates classroom community. Here, students write down their one greatest fear and their one biggest dream and post them to the webpage, share them on social media, etc. I can envision this activity growing within the English classroom to inspire writing prompts, projects, discussion, etc.

What originally interested me in writing about mental health in the English classroom is a novel I read over the summer, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyThis novel tells the story of a teenage boys who finds himself in an extremely suicidal state, calls a suicide hotline, and then spends a week in a mental hospital. The book is funny, inspiring, and terrifyingly real. After reading this book, I became interested in looking at the depiction of mental illness in young adult novels. As it turns out, there are a large number of books that are dealing with the topic. Some of my favorites are The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking for Alaska, and The Silver Linings Playbook (okay, I haven’t read this book yet, but the movie is superb!) I found a pretty extensive of list of YA novels that address mental health issues here.

I’ve been intrigued with the idea of incorporating this kind of YA literature into the classroom. I think it would be yet another way to open up dialogue about the real issues students may be facing and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. What do you guys think? Would you ever teach a book about mental health in your classroom? Have you read any of the books on the list? Are any of them books you could see yourself teaching?

How do you think Storytellers or Fears vs Dreams could be used in the English classroom? Would there be a way to use these concepts and ideas without necessarily having to subscribe to the organization?

I know this post addressed a lot of issues and teaching ideas. I’m interested in your thoughts about how mental illness can be addressed and taught in the English classroom.

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15 Responses to Talking and Teaching About Mental Health

  1. ptdinardi says:

    First, I really liked the PSA video at the top of the post. It was very effective and very moving. There are several members of my family who have been (for years and years) on and off anti-depressants or gone through stints of hospitalization. I know the stigma that comes along with mental health issues, especially depression, and how harmful it is to those trying to fight internal battles everyday. I think educating young people on the truth of mental illnesses is important and literature is a great medium to do so with. I also think some of the books on the list would be great choices for teaching about this topic in the classroom. Wintergirls, Perks of Being a Wallflower, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Cut, and Speak are some of my favorites. Wintergirls is one of my all time favorite books and I have always wanted to teach it in my future classroom. I think it is important to give students real and relatable characters, who deal with familiar issues and who eventually overcome their struggles.

    I had never heard of Fears vs Dreams before this blog post. After going through the page I think it is incredible outlet for people of all ages. One of the great things about it is that in the classroom it offers complete anonymity. It also fosters a sense of community and support. It allows students to know they are not alone in their fears and insecurities. I think you could use the concept of Fear vs. Dreams just inside the walls of your classroom, without having to subscribe to the organization.

  2. djkopping says:

    My sister delt with this issue when she was young, thirteen when things first started, it is something that she still has issues with today. The problem with mental illness is that it is not something that ever really gets “cured”. The people effected deal with it for their entire life. Things were a lot different back in my sister’s time. There was none of the programs like Storytellers to help support her. So, I am very glad to see that there is something being done to help kids today.

    Going into the teaching profession I feel that it is important that this issue is addressed in a competent way so that anyone who is effected does not feel that they are alone. I do think that Fears vs. Dreams thing is pretty cool. If possible, I would like to work with some of the books that are on the list..

    On a side note, I did not know that Silver Linings Playbook was a ya novel. I’ve seen the movie and it has a very adult feel to it. LIke Marybeth I will have to check it out.

    • Jon Naskrent says:

      Yeah Silver Linings Playbook is definitely not a Young Adult novel. I own two copies of the book, myself! But we’re certainly not confined to using only Young Adult books in the classroom. After all, canonical pieces such as Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Grapes of Wrath, etc are clearly not Young Adult, yet have a place in the classroom. Granted, these pieces are canonical and commonly accepted, but with a good lesson plan and strong rationale I wouldn’t rule out using a piece just because it’s not geared exactly towards adolescents.

  3. MaryBeth, I think you’ve brought up an important topic (and timely with World Suicide Prevention Day being last week). There are a number of students who struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about mental illness because we don’t see it. If it’s not something physical or doesn’t manifest in a physical way, we sometimes don’t believe that it exists. And, there’s a great stigma around mental illnesses and treatment. Having an open discussion and dialogue around this topic is important.

    I used some of the books you mentioned when I taught Young Adult LIt. Most students really liked “Wintergirls.” I was also going to use “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in this class if there were more people. I try to come up with a theme for the set of novels I pick each year for this course. Maybe next year I’ll use the theme of mental illness. Your list will be helpful!

    And you know I love the Storytellers project. How awesome is that?!

    Plus, you are all funny that you haven’t read Matthew Quick’s “The Silver Linings Playbook.” Despite the fact that it takes place in New Jersey (and not Philly like the movie), it does help put a bunch of the elements of the film in context. Yeah, folks. Every movie you see is probably based on a book that was way better than it:) (Just my PSA for the night.)

  4. kmoleson says:

    I really like this topic being brought up for the classroom. I think that it can tend to be an overlooked disorder in students because does not always give off obvious signs. I enjoyed the video that is posted at the beginning of the page, because it shows how students and unfortunately even teachers can chime in on calling out a student because of their problems. I know several people who suffer from depression and it is a disease that runs in my family. I recently lost a friend to suicide because of his depression and I think this is a topic that should be discussed in schools.

    I had first heard of “To Write Love on Her Arms” when I was a freshman at UNI by my roommate who had tattooed “Love” on her arm in honor of this organization. I think it is a good way to get students to open up about these things or anything that might be going on in their lives. I hadn’t ever heard of the Fears vs. Dreams until now, but it kind of reminds me of something like Post Secret, and I think that could be a cool thing to include in the school. Such as creating a Fears vs. Dreams/Post Secret wall where students can anonymously post these things up. It could be used as part of a unit plan included with a novel that is suggested in your post that deals with this topic. I think there are a lot of ways you can utilize this kind of thing in the classroom and it would tackle a number of things, not only in just the school aspect, but as well as dealing with things in the students’ lives.

  5. sdlambach says:

    I had struggles with mental illness throughout high school and forward. Some teachers in my high school I still very strongly dislike to this day because of the ways they responded to my behavior (jokes about my poor attendance in front of the class much like the first video you shared. Oooooh I’d love to tell that English teacher off now). Others responded in positive ways that left a great positive impact and helped me turn my academic performance around. I flunked Honors English II in high school but LOOK AT ME NOW. My favorite novel dealing with mental illness is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and was introduced to me by the first English teacher I had after I flunked out of the honors program. This teacher really helped me rekindle my love for English and literature. I believe that through literature, issues like mental illness can be brought into the classroom, or simply into our lives, in a nonthreatening way.
    I would love to see discussions about mental illness in the classroom and programs to help students further communicate and navigate their emotions. I think teaching students how to talk about mental illness and that it’s okay to talk about it will help lift stigmas. I like the links you provide to the Storytellers campaign and Fears vs Dreams. Both look like great ways to get students writing and talking about their own mental health and to build a supportive community.

  6. zxxkimxxz says:

    This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, considering I’ll be in a classroom next week. I’m really worried that this is a topic I won’t be able to avoid. I don’t mean that I don’t want to address it, just that I want to approach it on my own terms in my own time. I’ve got scars and I’m sure some day, one of my students is going to see them and ask what happened. I’ve been struggling a lot with what to tell them, especially because there is still such a stigma surrounding mental illness. I do think it is an important conversation to have with students, I just don’t know how comfortable I would be being the object that starts the discussion. I mean, I don’t even know what to tell my own little sister when she asks about them. There’s something horrible about feeling flawed in front of people that look up to you.

    I would love to teach a book like “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” or “Perks of Being a Wallflower”. I’ve never read any of these books, but they’re all on my list or added to it. I’d also love to incorporate Fears vs Dreams into the class. I’ve heard about it before, but I never would have thought to have a lesson involving participating in the campaign. My school also had a Write Love on your Arms day. I thought it was a beautiful way to show support to those who may be struggling.

  7. Folks, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your stories and being honest and open about this topic. I’m glad there’s a space for discussion here and I’m also glad you feel comfortable sharing parts of your stories. You all rock. Have a great night.

  8. Jon Naskrent says:

    Mental illness is tough to talk about. Even now, sitting at my computer screen, reading a post about a topic I’m deeply invested in, with a class and professor I trust and respect an extraordinary amount, I’m a bit lost for words and tongue-tied.

    At the end of the day, all I know to say is mental illness sucks. I know first-hand that depression sucks. I know that some people don’t really get it. Heck, I even dated someone for four years who didn’t get it. Like Sarah, I’ve had professors, teachers, and people I’ve put tremendous respect and trust into not get it, and even treat me differently due to differences they do not understand. Like Kim, I freeze up at the idea of discussing it with my students. And myself, usually eloquent, can only produce: “it sucks.”

    I’ll talk about it with my students because it’s important and I understand and I know what the floor feels like at five a.m. being unable to sleep all too well. I personally like It’s Kind of a Funny Story best, but after such positive reviews from Presley and Dr. Buchanan I am intrigued by Wintergirls. As far as classroom texts are concerned I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is perhaps the easiest to use–it is not entirely in the canon, but as far as I know, the piece is well-known for its literary value–it should be easy to write a rationale for, and since the piece isn’t clearly isn’t about mental illness until the end, it shouldn’t alienate students, either.

    MB, thanks for the post; it’s a fantastic topic. And thank you everyone else for your words, trust, and thoughts.

  9. marybethlillian says:

    Listen, you guys are amazing. I am so stoked to get on here and see you all sharing stories and being real about real stuff. It took a leap of courage to write this blog post, and I am so blessed to see such transparent responses. If nothing else, it reminds me that I am not alone. Y’all are encouraging and inspiring me. I can relate and connect with each of your posts, from feeling scared to death to explain mental illness to my students to saying, “LOOK AT ME NOW.” But even as I read this thread and write this post, I can’t help but think that this discussion is serving to reduce negative stigma in our own worlds. What we’re doing is exactly what I hope can continue happening in our classrooms. This is good stuff. Thanks for being a part of it with me.

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