Lesson 4: Stigma

Caring Minds (Grades 7-12) > Understanding, Experiencing and Equity > Lesson 4: Stigma

Lesson 4: Stigma

Starter: Brainstorming about Stigma (10 minutes)

  • Brainstorm with students about words they use to describe the following: someone with a mental health issue, someone with cancer, a friend. Write the words students provide on the board.
  • Discuss with students the results (negative words will be associated with mental illness and positive words will be associated with the other two)
  • Key points: Mental Illness and mental health are associated with a lot of negative language, images and labels.


  • Ask students to brainstorm words that they associate with mental health (eg crazy, wacko, insane). Ask them to think about how often they use those words? i.e. this homework is driving me crazy Have they ever called someone “retarded”?
  • Once there is a list on the board go through each one and have the students identify whether the terms are negative or positive.
  • Discuss the impact of using such language for people dealing with mental health conditions (how would they feel? Are they likely to tell someone about their situation or ask for help when needed? – Why/why not). How does the language contribute to stigmatization?
  • Ask students what can be done to challenge the use of stigmatizing language? Brainstorm alternative language/positive language.

Discussion: What is Stigma? (15-20 minutes)

  • Explain to the students that in this lesson they are going to take a look at the negative labelling that is associated with mental illness and how it impacts the lives of those with mental health concerns.
  • Share with students some or all of the cartoons taken from patient/user/survivor publications from the 1970s and 1980s. (RESOURCE 4A)
  • Provide students with the definitions for stigma/discrimination/stereotype/prejudice
    • Stigma:
      • brand, stain, blemish, defect, a scar, a mark of shame
      • Use of negative labels to identify a person
    • Discrimination:
      • Unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice
    • Stereotype:
      • A standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudice or uncritical judgment
    • Prejudice:
      • an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason (Merriam-Webster)
  • Discuss the implications of stereotyping, discrimination and stigma for mental health (what are the mental health stereotypes? What is the stigma that surrounds mental health? How might a person with a mental illness be treated differently? How might they be discriminated against? How might it affect finding or keeping a job etc?)
  • Ask where the students where they think the stereotypes and prejudice around mental health come from? Why were lesbians, un-wed mothers and unhappy wives considered mentally ill in the past? Introduce the role of media, professional labelling, cultural norms and language.

Activity 1: Where Does Stigma Come From? (20 minutes)

  • Read to students Crosscurrent: “News media perpetuate the myth about mental illness and violence.” (RESOURCE 4B) Media plays an important role is how we view the world.
  • Have students look at film clips and music videos (RESOURCE 4C) and discuss what the resource says/implies about mental health and mental illness. How does the source convey its message? (words used, actions of character, music) Is their portrayal realistic? Does it convey a positive or negative message?, a romantic image, an image of creative genius? What are the stereotypes/stigma if any? How are people with mental health issues portrayed differently in older films? (The Snake Pit-1948, Marianne Faithful’s cover of The Ballad of Lucy Jordon-1979) And recent Hollywood productions? (Girl Interrupted-1999) How are people with mental health issues understood in the various newspaper articles? How might the film clip or music video lead to discrimination towards people with a mental illness?  Or challenge it?
  • Discuss the implications of negative images and false information and how they can perpetuate discrimination and prejudice against people labelled “mentally ill.”
  • Note: Sometimes people romanticize mental conditions – i.e. Kurt Cobain and the way in which suicide can be romanticized; the way in which creativity is linked to mental instability and genius (as in the film A Beautiful Mind); or even extra-ordinary physical abilities (ADHD – Michael Phillips.) These illustrations would allow students to consider positive stigma regarding mental health.

Activity 2: Impact of Stigma (20+ minutes)

  • Divide students into groups and assign each group a poem. (Resource 4D)
  • Have the students read the/listen to creative expressions of the impact of stigma about mental difficulties and answer questions:
    • What was the person’s experience like? (positive/negative)
    • How did they feel? (Hopeless, anxious, embarrassed etc)
    • What would/could have made their experience better? More positive?
  • Bring the students back together and discuss findings. Highlight the importance of not stigmatizing or stereotyping.
  • Extension: Have students create a poster for their school about the impact of stigmatizing language and the possibilities of alternative language around mental health.

Activity 3: How to Challenge Stigma? (15 minutes)

  • Have the students brainstorm strategies for change/ways to challenge stigma. What can be done to challenge the stigma around mental health? What can you do? What can the community do? What can schools do? Create a list on the board.
  • Show the students the Centre for Addictions & Mental Health list of strategies and see how the two lists compare (Resource 4E)

Extension Activity: Positive Change

  • As a class organize a Mental Health day at school.

Closure: (5 minutes)

  • Have students reflect on what they can do personally to help challenge stigma (this can be done either in a journal or orally.)


4A What is Stigma
4B Where Does Stigma Come From?
4C Where Does Stigma Come From? Film and Music
  • Film Clip – The Snake Pit.* Standard Hollywood depictions of “crazies” in the asylum
  • Film Clip – A Beautiful Mind.*  John Nash as the mad genius
  • Music Video – The Ballad of Lucy Jordon by Marianne Faithful http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KV-PTK0UZ4 The Crazy Housewife
  • Film Clip – Girl Interrupted*  – the “crazy” girls go out for ice cream
  • Music Video – They’re coming to take me away: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXZMZ-XvvzI

* Movie clips do not have a lot of longevity on You-Tube, but these three clips can be easily located and give a good range of  how Hollywood has portrayed madness.

4D Impact of Stigma
Resource 4E: How to Challenge Stigma?

Additional Resources