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2. Set

In this activity…

Students discuss ideas related to mental health, identify the distinction between mental health and mental illness, and begin to address inaccurate beliefs.


Inform students that you will be spending the next hour talking about mental health and mental illness. Explain that there are many different views, opinions, and beliefs about mental health and mental illness. Before diving into the lesson, try getting a sense of what students already know, as well as their perspectives, beliefs, ideas, and opinions. Ask students, what mental health means to them. What are the first words that pop into their head when they hear “mental health”? What has influenced these associations for them?

Students will likely share a variety of different perspectives. Some students will accurately identify that you asked about mental health (rather than mental illness) and share self-care practices, positive feelings, or encouraging thoughts that allow them to fully participate in their everyday lives. Many students will talk about mental illness, identifying things such as anxiety, depression, or even suicide. Do not immediately correct this. For the next 3-4 minutes, allow as many students as possible to share their opinions. Encourage participation by reminding students that their answers are not being marked.

Once numerous students have had the opportunity to share and answers have included examples of both mental health and mental illness, thank everyone for sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Point out that the class ended up talking about two different ideas. Explain that some students identified mental health, which relates to wellbeing, and other students talked about mental illness, which includes mental disorders like anxiety and depression.

Use the slide deck to share the full definitions of mental health and mental illness. Recall that mental health is a state of wellbeing in which students realize their abilities, can cope with stress and challenges, and where they feel capable of positively contributing to the community. On the other hand, mental illness refers to diagnosable disorders that involve changes in thoughts, feelings, or mood. Let students know that these illnesses are associated with distress and result in troubles functioning in social, school, or family activities.

To reinforce the difference between mental health and mental illness, compare physical health and physical illness. Explain that when students talk about physical health, they might think of behaviours that they can engage in to maintain their wellbeing, like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Alternatively, when they think about physical illness, they might think of specific diseases like the flu, a common cold, pneumonia, or cancer. Before moving on, ask students if they have any questions about the distinction between health and illness.

After answering questions, tell students that, for many years, the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ have been used interchangeably. Use the slide deck to show the single continuum of mental health and illness or, draw a long, two-headed arrow across the whiteboard, writing “mental illness” at one end, and “mental health” at the other end.

Explain that this diagram represents a continuum, with mental health and mental illness as opposite extremes. In this model, a person could fall anywhere on the line in terms of their mental state. Ask students to raise their hands if they think that this diagram accurately represents the relationship between mental health and mental illness (i.e. are mental health and mental illness opposites?).

Then, ask students, to think about any limitations with thinking about mental health and mental illness as opposites. If necessary, guide students towards understanding that this single continuum suggests that people with a mental illness cannot have mental health.