Before starting this activity, mention that students may know someone who has experienced one of these mental illnesses and remind them that they should not share stories that are not theirs to share. Let students know that this activity is about understanding the meaning, challenges, and experiences associated with different mental illnesses, not about telling someone else’s story. Also remind students that anything that is shared in this class, stays in this class.
Explain that two main classes of mental illness are anxiety disorders and mood disorders. Use information from the ‘READY’ section, as well as the slide deck to give students more information about these two classes of disorder, starting with anxiety.
Explain that anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty, perceived danger, or important events. Anxiety is something that everyone has and it’s normal to feel anxious about a big competition or performance. Let students know that a certain degree of anxiety is even necessary for students to perform to the best of their ability. But that, even though anxiety can protect them from danger, anxiety becomes a problem when it:
- Goes off when there is no real or immediate danger
- Happens a lot
- Feels pretty intense
- Is upsetting and causes you distress
- Stops you from doing fun and important things (ex. school, work, social life, setting goals)
Watch the video “Fight, Flight, Freeze – Anxiety Explained for Teens”, from Anxiety Canada, which explains why students experience anxiety as well as some of the most common symptoms of anxiety.
After the video, ask students if they have any general questions about anxiety. Then, ask them to think about and (if they are comfortable) share answers to any or all of the following questions:
- What does anxiety feel like? What physical symptoms do you experience?
- When do you feel anxious? What about that situation makes you anxious?
- How have you managed anxiety in the past?
- How might disproportionate amounts of anxiety get in the way of everyday life?
- Do you think that knowing the root cause and purpose of anxiety will help you manage your anxiety in the future?
- If one of your friends was experiencing a lot of anxiety, how might you be able to help them?
Before moving on to Mood disorders, mention that there are eleven different types of anxiety disorders that are each characterized by a specific set of physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural symptoms. Students will have the opportunity to explore these specific diagnoses later.
Next, explain that mood disorders are a class of mental disorders that involve fluctuations in how someone feels. Let students know that if they had a mood disorder, they might feel “stuck” in a low mood, “stuck” in a high mood, or unnaturally cycle between the two extremes. Also mention that the emotional state or mood of a person with a Mood Disorder is generally inconsistent with their circumstances and interferes with their ability to think, feel, or function in everyday life.
The two most common types of mood disorders are depression and bipolar disorder. Start by watching the five-minute TED-Ed video explaining depression.
After the video, ask students the following questions:
- In your own words, can you describe what the difference is between having depression and feeling depressed?
- Have you ever felt empty, low energy, sad or hopeless? What helped you get through those moments?
- Do you think that someone with depression can still participate normally in everyday life? Why or why not?
- What could you do or tell someone who you thought was struggling with depression?
Next, watch the TED-Ed video explaining Bipolar disorder.
After the video, ask students the following questions:
- Most doctors see patients with bipolar disorder when they are depressed (rather than manic). Why might this be?
- Why might it be important to distinguish between Major Depressive Disorder (unipolar depression) and Bipolar Disorder? How might they have to be treated differently (ex. using an antidepressant versus a mood stabilizer)?
- Demi Lovato is an example of a celebrity who is open about her experiences with Bipolar Disorder and claims that it’s possible to live well with Bipolar Disorder. Do you believe her? What might help you manage this illness?
Finally, make sure that students know that they barely scratched the surface of mental illnesses. Mention that other common mental illnesses include eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, personality disorders like borderline personality disorders, and substance-use disorders, or addictions. Now, tell students that their project will be to choose and research one specific mental illness. Students will then create an information brochure about that disorder.
The brochure should include an overall description of the illness, common symptoms, treatment options, and resources to access for more information or support. These brochures can also include quotes or personal statements from someone who has recovered from the mental illness. Encourage students to be as creative as they want and let them know that everyone’s finished brochures will be shared with the class and can be used as a future resource.
In the upcoming week, try to give students 1-2 hours to use available technology to conduct research. Make sure that students are using reputable sources such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Canadian Mental Health Association, or other national, government-funded organizations. The following week, give students another 1-2 hours to start working on their brochures. Students should have their brochures completed and submitted by the end of the second week.
Mental Illness Brochure Instructions available in the downloads section.
What causes mental illness?
There is no single cause of mental illness and, for many people, there is a complicated combination of factors at play. Risk factors are things that increase the chance of having a disease and, in the case of mental illness, risk factors include abuse, trauma or neglect, genetic predisposition (ex. if a blood relative such as a parent or sibling has a mental illness), poverty, social isolation, chronic stress, and substance use. Doctors and researchers typically refer to the biopsychosocial model of mental health when they are describing the onset of mental illness. This model suggests that there are three determinants of mental health:
- Biological – includes your physical health, genetic vulnerabilities, and drug effects
- Psychological – includes your self-esteem, thoughts, mood, overall mental wellbeing, coping skills, and social skills
- Social – includes your friendships, peers, family relationships, and family circumstances
What if someone I know has a mental illness?
The first thing you should do is ask yourself whether that person is aware of their challenges and is already in the process of receiving support. If they are, then you don’t have to do anything other than be a good friend. Let them know that you are always there if they need you and that you want to help them in any way possible. Make sure they know that their challenges with mental health do not change anything about your relationship.
If you think that someone is struggling with their mental health and that they may need support that they are not currently receiving, then try talking to them openly. Explain what you’ve noticed (ex. “I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed sad lately.”) and ask them to tell you more (ex. “I was wondering if anything is going on that you wanted to talk about?”). It can be helpful to say why you are bringing up the topic (ex. “I am asking because I am worried about you and I want to make sure that you are safe and supported.”). They may not be ready to talk, but let them know that you’re there for them if they ever want to talk in the future. If there is an explicit reason for you to be concerned for their own or someone else’s safety (ex. if they talk about wanting to hurt or kill themselves) then you MUST tell someone (ex. teacher, parent, guidance counsellor), who can take action. Even if they do not mention self-harm or suicide, it would be important to involve a more experienced, knowledgeable, and mature professional.
If the person you know does speak openly about their challenges and admits that they are not receiving any support, encourage them to connect with a teacher, family member, or community worker who can help them. It’s best if you come up with a plan together. For example, you may help them decide who they will talk to, when they will talk to them, and what they are going to say. If it’s a phone conversation, you may even offer to call the number for them or to be there during the conversation so that they have someone “safe” to turn to. Hold them to their word by checking in with them the next day.
Is mental illness contagious? Can I catch it like a cold?
No, mental illnesses are not contagious. There is no way of catching a mental illness like you could with the cold or flu. This means that you could be best friends with someone who has a mental illness, play with them on the playground, and hug them, without worrying about getting it. Thinking that mental illnesses are contagious adds to the stigma about mental health and contributes to the misconception that it's best to avoid, or keep your distance from, people with mental disorders. Regardless of what kind of mental illness a person is struggling with, strong social support is one of the most important factors contributing to their recovery. If you know someone who has a mental illness, let them know that you are there for them, help them feel seen and heard, and help them fight for their future.
Can I do something to protect myself from mental illness? Like a vaccination?
There is no vaccination against mental illness or anything that you can do to 100% guarantee that you will never experience a mental health challenge. However, there are many things that you can do to decrease your risk of experiencing a mental illness. These things are commonly referred to as protective factors because they decrease your risk of experiencing a mental illness. Everything that you are learning in Beecuz’ program, such as cultivating a growth mindset, emotional intelligence, positive self-talk, mindfulness, and relationships, is a way for you to enhance your mental health and wellbeing. One of the most important things you can do to stay happy and healthy is to be open and honest about how you are feeling. By talking to parents, family members, teachers, or other grown-ups about your feelings, you can get the help that you need to feel better and you can celebrate your wins when things go well. Other people can also help you accomplish your goals and follow your dreams. Participating in hobbies and social activities like sports, music, or crafts can also be a great way to feel a part of a community, boost your mood, and feel good about yourself.