Mental Health Issues: Overcoming Stigma in the Classroom

Mental health is a global concern, and yet it’s an issue that is frequently misunderstood. The first step towards conquering the harmful stigma associated with mental health issues is to encourage greater public education surrounding mental illness. As teachers, you are poised to be front-runners in overcoming mental health stigma in your classrooms. Openly communicating with students from an early age can help them develop empathy and can lead to an increased likelihood of symptom recognition and treatment seeking.  The following four steps will help you determine what obstacles exist and give you ideas on how to overcome them.

  1. Become aware of your own biases—and those of your students
    Biases or prejudices can arise without you even knowing it. Why? Because in order to process large amounts of information, we create stereotypes that decrease our information processing time and free up more brain power to focus on other, more important details. One problem with stereotypes is that you can overestimate the association between particular characteristics and a group of people. For example, if a person with a mental illness causes you harm, an association between “mental illness” and “dangerous” could develop. Despite the fact that the majority of your encounters with such individuals will not have such an association, you will be more likely to remember the events that support this stereotype, thus contributing to an unfounded belief that all those who suffer from a mental illness are dangerous.In order to combat stigma, we have to understand our own biases as well as those of others. To elicit what you really think about mental illness, test yourself and then your students. Try the following:

    • Free associate what words come to mind when you hear the terms mental illness, psychiatry, depression, and schizophrenia.
    • If you were considering a person for a job, and you knew they had a mental illness, would that deter you from hiring them?
    • Would you initiate a friendship with someone who has a mental illness?

    Whether your answers to these questions were mostly negative or weren’t negative at all, keep reading for some information that may help you educate your colleagues, family, and friends…

  2. Contrast beliefs with education
    Mental health literacy in Canada is in great need of improvement. In a study of over 3,000 adults in Alberta, over 45 per cent believed people with depression were unpredictable, while 20 per cent considered them to be dangerous. In youth and adults, education on mental disorders, including what they are as well as their causes and treatments, can in itself improve perceptions of psychiatric illness. There are many resources available to educate yourself and to begin educating others. Why not start with one of the following?

  1. Get your students and even your school involved
    Now that you are armed with the right information, it is time to get involved. You can start small—within your own classroom first, and then with other teachers—by designing a cohesive program to get the dialogue on mental health started. There are many ways to do this at your school:

    • Host education and awareness workshops
    • Integrate social media into the campaign
    • Enlist the help of local mental health advocacy groups
    • Have individuals with mental health diagnoses speak with students

    You may want to consider having students take on an active leadership role in the design and execution of an awareness campaign. This will help ensure the campaign is truly relatable to a student audience. Moreover, having students encourage positive attitudes towards mental health in others can also help eradicate their own stereotypes.

  2. Integrate mental health language into your daily teaching practice
    Another step towards overcoming stigma is by normalizing discussions on mental illness. We tend not to discuss things we consider “taboo,” “too personal,” or “embarrassing.” While an awareness campaign can go a long way to overcoming this roadblock, using mental health language on a regular basis and being open and solution-focused in your classroom can reaffirm that the topic of mental health is not taboo. It also models behaviour that is accepting of honest and open communication. Get started around exam time by saying something like, “I know that you may be feeling anxious and overwhelmed. What are some things you do to feel less stressed before your exams?”
  3. Keep the discussion going all year
    Don’t just wait for a yearly campaign to discuss mental health. Encourage dialogue in various ways:

    • Weekly 20-minute stress reduction exercises, where students learn different coping techniques; consider ending with a ten-minute discussion on how effective students felt the exercise was and ask for suggestions on how to “personalize” them
    • Create a class website or Facebook page dedicated to mental health; link to content that engages students
    • Choose mental health topics for student projects; have students work in small groups and present their topic to the class each month
    • Encourage students to talk to you about any mental health concerns they might have by setting up a class email system; students can send you a message if they want to privately let you know about an issue they are having
    • Give students ten minutes of class time to write about their feelings or worries each day

Overcoming mental health stigma is not a daunting task if everyone at your school works together. With the right leadership and a little bit of encouragement, you can get students talking about an important issue that may impact their own lives now or in the future. These are lessons that will stay with them years after they have left your classroom!


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(Last reviewed January 24, 2014)

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