World Mental Health Day is October 10th. Mental illness in America is so prevalent, and yet many do not understand the prevalence or the profound effect on life that it can have. It is imperative that education about mental illness and its effects begin early to heighten awareness and promote compassion for individuals that suffer from mental illness.

What is World Mental Health Day?

World Mental Health Day is day set aside for global mental health education and awareness. It is also a day for advocacy against social stigma related to mental illness. Approximately 18% of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness. These illnesses can range from anxiety and depression to PTSD and schizophrenia. The hope in having this special day set aside to raise awareness is that it will encourage the mobilization of efforts in support of mental health.

Why is it Important to Teach Students about Mental Health?

Due to the prevalence of mental illness and the stigma attached to it, it is important to begin teaching students about mental illness at an early age. Mental illness can lead to some very significant and sometimes tragic problems later in life. For example, approximately 45% of the nation’s homeless population is suffering from mental illness. Also, more than 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a VA for mental illness in 2018 alone.

With these large groups suffering consequences of mental illness, it is important that we begin promoting more fervently the social change required to help those with mental illness. These facts do not even take into consideration the large number of youth that suffer from some level of mental illness. Up to one in five kids living in the U.S. show signs of mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Yet only 20% of these students receive treatment for those issues.

Also, the increased isolation and economic turmoil created by the pandemic makes it even more important due to the increase in mental illness that such conditions create. All of these are important reasons to teach students about mental health.

How to Incorporate World Mental Health Day into your Lesson

When we implement activities about mental health into our classrooms, it is important that we recognize two different components to mental health awareness: 1. Teaching students to have compassion for those that suffer from mental illness and how to bring about social change for mental health and 2. Understanding and dealing with one’s own feelings in order to recognize the emotions and learn to cope with those emotional issues. Here are some ideas to try in your classroom this year on World Mental Health Day:

Start the Discussion

The most important and most basic thing that can be done to promote mental health is to start the discussion. This is the same with any grade level. You must create an environment in which talking about emotions is normalized. Making a list of emotion words that helps students communicate how they feel or sharing emotions that you, as an adult, feel can really help students understand that all emotions are okay and that there are things we can do to manage those emotions.

Also, by creating a safe and secure learning environment, students can feel free to discuss problems and issues with their teachers. Knowing your students can really help you to recognize when there is a significant change in behavior that may be caused by anxiety or depression. Investing in relationships with your students can be the single most important step that you can take in helping students deal with their own mental issues and illnesses.

Books

There are many different books that can be read, for different age groups, to help students understand the difficulties that face those with mental illness. Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods that Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis is a great book to help students recognize all the feelings that they can have and that those feelings are okay.

Other more specific books like Can I Catch it Like a Cold? by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health helps students deal with parents that have depression. Another book for a more specific purpose is A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes. This is a book about a little one that witnesses a traumatic event and how to deal with the emotions that follow.

My favorite book for helping students understand the importance of compassion for those with mental illness is Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli. An online version of this book read aloud by Hector Elizondo is available on here. This book helps students understand how kindness can change people’s lives and trying to reach out to the person that seems sad or lonely can make all the difference to them.

Film

There are several films for different grade levels that can serve as a starting point for conversation about mental health. One example is “Inside Out”. This is a movie, which is perfect for younger students, in which the many emotions that one can have are personified. It really helps students understand that everyone experiences all those emotions, both good and bad.

Stigma Discussion

This is a great idea for older students. Begin by grouping students and allowing them to discuss what stigma means. Then encourage whole group discussion with questions like “What negative things have you heard about people with mental illness?”, “What positive things have you heard?”, etc. Have students take a Personal Attitudes Survey to discover their own feelings toward mental illness. Ask students if they have any close friends with mental illness. Most will say no. Then, discuss issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, which will prompt students to realize that they probably know more than one person with some level of mental illness.

M&M or Skittles Game

Assign an emotion to each color of candy. For example, red = happy, brown = sad, green = angry, etc. Then have students draw a candy and share something that makes them happy, sad, angry, etc. according to the color of candy they draw.

Mental Health Quiz

There is a youth quiz found on the Mental Health America website that students can take to help them examine their own mental state and evaluate their emotions.