Lesson 3: Mental Illness

Starter: Fact or Fiction (10-15 minutes)

  • Fact or Fiction (RESOURCE 3A): play a true or false game about mental illness. Following the game discuss the answers and bust myths about mental illness

Discussion: What is Mental Illness? (10 minutes)

  • Mental health problems exist on a continuum from mild (worry or anxiety) to severe (serious disorders)
  • Provide students with the current Canadian definition of mental illness and discuss.
    • “Mental illness is a disturbance in thoughts and emotions that decreases a person’s capacity to cope with the challenges of everyday life.” (Canadian Mental Health Association)
  • Common mental diagnoses include depression anxiety disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Mental health conditions have often been misunderstood, both in the past and today. For example, in the past, being unhappy in marriage, having a child when you were not married, being homosexual, or masturbating, might have led you to be labelled “mentally ill” and perhaps put in an institution to be “cured.” Because of fear and prejudice, people who were seen as different were often labelled as mentally ill even if they were not.
  • In many non-Western cultures unusual or “crazy” behaviour is tolerated: there aren’t even words in the language for “mental illness” and “mental health.” Treatment is often very different as well, with people using community rituals and spiritual practices to heal the troubled mind. In the past, Iroquois and Huron Peoples of central Canada believed that mental trouble was a sign that a person was out of balance with nature, the spirits and their community. Traditional healing today among those groups still involves working with dreams so people could express their frustrations, sadness, anger and desires. Amongst the Miskito People of Central America Grisi Siknis “crazy sickness”, believed to be inflicted by devils, makes young women dizzy, angry, nauseous, fearful. Only the remedies of Miskito herbalists and witch doctors can bring a cure. When native Indians in Latin America experience “suto”, they understand that they are being attacked by spirits, and lie on the floor to have their body “swept” with fresh herbs while prayers are spoken.
  • No matter what culture, mental health difficulties are sometimes ongoing, and many people learn to live with them in a healthy way, accepting who they are. There are a variety of treatments available. In Western countries, health professionals can provide important help in assisting people find which treatment is best for them. People with mental health difficulties also talk about the importance of figuring out what works for them and finding support through peer groups.

Activity 1: Across Time and Culture (20 minutes)

  • Provide students with current, historical and cross-cultural definitions of mental illness and discuss them as a class.
    • Mental Illness Today: Mental illness is a disturbance in thoughts and emotions that decreases a person’s capacity to cope with the challenges of everyday life (Canadian Mental Health Association)
    • Lunacy: Ancient Romans believed that the mind was affected by the moon and that lunatics grew more and more frenzied as the moon increased to its full (Latin luna, ‘moon’). Lunatics: Literally, moon-struck persons. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable)
    • Madness: “We call madness that disease of the organs of the brain which inevitably prevents a man from thinking and acting like others. Unable to administer his property he is declared incapable; unable to have ideas suitable for society, he is excluded from it; if he is dangerous he is locked up; if he is violent he is tied up. Sometimes he is cured by baths, blood-letting and diet.” Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
    • Dreams: “For the Iroquois and Huron First Nations, dreams were unfulfilled desires and wishes of the soul that had to be fulfilled in some way, or less the dream could weigh heavily upon an individual, causing mental and physical suffering, and negatively affecting the whole community. This suffering could be relieved by re-enacting the dreams in a ceremonial form. Special healers (shamans) were often asked for help with interpreting dreams and for suggestions about how they might be re-enacted to satisfy the dreamer.” (James Moran, medical historian)
    • Crazy Behaviour: “While censorious of those who default on social obligations, the Kaugel people [of Papua New Guinea] are relatively accepting of crazy behaviour, both chronic and temporary, so long as no significant person or material damage is caused.” (Michael Goddard, medical anthropologist)
  • Have the students compare and contrast the different definitions.
  • Questions for discussion: What are the similarities? What are the differences? What type of image of mental health do you get from each definition? (positive or negative) What do these “old-fashioned” terms or the descriptions from other cultures say about how our views of health change across time and space?

Activity 2: Talking about Madness (20 minutes)

  • Have students read and respond to three pieces of writing by people experiencing mental health conditions. (RESOURCE 3B)
  • Questions for discussion: Are the labels of insane, abnormal and sick, etc appropriate and or just in these cases? Are the patients that different from the rest of society or are they simply misunderstood? Does difference justify institutionalization? How do the patients feel about theses terms?

Extension Activities: Beyond the Classroom

  • Have guest speakers come in to talk about mental health conditions. This might include individuals experiencing mental health issues, family, or people providing services in the field.
  • Each student researches a mental health service organization like Sound Times or PARC in Toronto and presents it to the class.

Closure: (5-10 minutes)

  • Have students write a journal reflection on what they learnt about mental health conditions. Questions to consider: What was one thing you leant about mental health that you didn’t know before? How do mental health issues affect our community?


3A Fact or Fiction

3B Talking about Madness

Additional Resources