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Education: Higher Education

Making Sense of Mental Health: Past and Present

  • Grade level: 9–12
  • subject: health education

Time Needed

Three 40-minute class periods


This lesson plan is prepared to increase the awareness of several mental health disorders. The plan provides team-based activities and a research project for students in three class periods. In Class 1, students explore the depictions of symptoms, treatments, and causes of a mental illness in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a short story written in late 1800s by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Students move from the past and fiction to the present in Class 2 as they work in teams to research and gather information on a specific mental health disorder in preparation for creating a poster for the third class. In Class 3 students display their posters as well as view other teams’ posters to share information and to raise awareness of various mental health disord

  • learning outcomes

    Students will be able to:
    • describe common symptoms of depression and several other mental health disorders.
    • identify possible causes and available treatments for depression and other mental disorders.
    • locate resources in one’s community and on the Internet for information and services regarding prevention strategies for depression and other mental health disorders.
    • evaluate criteria for reliability of health information web sites.
  • Background Information

    Class 1: The Literature of Prescription exhibition features “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the late nineteenth century. This fictional work chronicles the mental decline of a young married woman who was undergoing a “rest cure” for her ‘nervous disease.’ The exhibition provides historical background, offering social and medical context of Gilman’s time when the prevailing gender assumptions in society influenced some of its contemporary physicians’ understanding and treatments for mental illness, or nervous disease, among women. Teachers are encouraged to review, especially the exhibition sections, Introduction, The Woman Question, and A Terrifying Tale, links to the pages to enrich and expand the lesson’s learning outcomes.

    Classes 2-3: The following web sites provide information and resources for a variety of mental health disorders:

  • Vocabulary

    The following words may be introduced though research activity or class discussions:

    • mental illness, clinical depression, post-partum depression, suicide, dementia, anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobia, personality disorder, mood disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, eating disorder
    • delusion, hallucination, anxiety, compulsion, obsession
    • neurotransmitter, neurochemicals
    • psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, group therapy, drug therapy, hospitalization
    • neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric social worker
    • stigma
  • Materials

    Print All Materials
    Other materials and set-ups:
    • flip chart, overhead projector and transparency, or smart board
    • highlighter, pen or pencil
    • computers with the Internet access for Class 2
  • class 1 procedures

    (Preparation: Remind students about the sensitivity of discussing mental health topics over the next few classes. Explain that everyone at different times in her or his life may face periods of stress of unhappiness. Whether or not this is classified as a mental health disorder depends on how disorders are classified at the time as well as the severity and length of time he or she is affected. Before Class 1, distribute and have students read as homework the online article, “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness” or any other appropriate materials that provide students with understanding and clear guidelines for discussing and treating mental health issues respectfully, empathetically, confidentially—i.e., what is shared in the class stays in the classroom, and without stigmatizing mental illness.)

    1. Tell students that the class will explore a past literary depiction of a mental health disorder by reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in 1892.
    2. Distribute copies of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” for students to read and mark the text that they consider as descriptions of symptoms (highlight text), treatments (underline text), and causes (circle text) of the mental illness depicted in the fictional work.
    3. Have students finish their reading activity in 10-15 minutes.
    4. Group students in teams of four and distribute a copy of the Discussion Circle handout to each team for debriefing and summarizing the team’s discussions.
    5. Display a Discussion Circle transparency and review the activity procedures as a class before teams start the activity.
    6. Summarize the class discussion in steps 7 and 8 on the Discussion Circle transparency to be used in the next class period.
    7. Debrief as a class by having three teams volunteer their lists on one of the three categories, and invite teams to comment on or add to the lists.
    8. Have three other teams read aloud one of the three sentences under #5 on the Discussion Circle handout, and have other teams offer different perspectives.
    9. Collect all teams’ completed Discussion Circle handouts for assessment, and inform students that they will move from the late nineteenth century to the present by exploring current scientific understanding and knowledge about mental health disorders in the next class.
    10. Class 1 Evaluation: The Discussion Circle activity helps teachers assess students’ comprehension of the story as well as understanding of symptoms, causes, and treatments of an illness. Teachers are able to evaluate the completed Discussion Circle handouts for identifying any misunderstanding or misinformation that should be addressed in the next class.
  • class 2 procedures

    (Preparation: If possible, make arrangements so that a team has at least one computer with Internet access for the research portion of the Discussion Circle activity. If computers are not available, work with a school librarian to gather printed materials for students’ research. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) produces publications that can be ordered or printed from Mental Health Awareness Project).

    1. Display the Discussion Circle transparency (Class 1, Steps 6-8), summarizing previous class discussions of the symptoms, treatments, and causes of a mental illness depicted in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,”
    2. Review the lists on the transparency and conduct a brief class discussion with the following questions:
      1. How would the story be written differently if “The Yellow Wall-Paper” were to be written today: setting, characters, and details about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of depression or other mental health disorders?
      2. In your opinion, are the symptoms, treatments, and causes of depression described in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” applicable today? Why or why not?
      3. Thinking more broadly about different types of mental health disorders; what questions do you have?
    3. Tell students that some of their questions about the mental health disorder should be answered as they work on a team project in this and the next classes.
    4. Group students in teams of three and distribute a Mental Health Awareness Project packet to each team.
    5. Display the List of Mental Health Disorders transparency to assign team numbers and one or two mental health disorders to teams for their research.
    6. Allow teams to conduct research and gather materials in preparation for producing a research poster for the next class.
    7. Have teams use the last five minutes of the class to debrief on their research findings and prepare for how and what to do to present their Mental Health Awareness posters in Class 3.
    8. As homework, assign teams to plan and work together and to bring materials for their poster set-up at the beginning of the next class.
    9. Class 2 Evaluation: The debriefing and poster planning discussions among teams provide an assessment opportunity for teachers to evaluate students’ interest and understanding of the materials encountered online.
  • class 3 procedures

    (Preparation: Prepare for the posters to be placed in the classroom—e.g., tables are placed on the periphery of the classroom to place three-sided poster boards, or large butcher sheets are hung on the classroom walls as ‘poster boards.’ If there is enough time and technology support, have teams make ten-minute oral presentations using PowerPoint or other software instead of producing posters.)

    1. Allow teams to set up and prepare their posters around the classroom, and place a stack of Post-its by each poster.
    2. Handout copies of the Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment handout to students to complete as they evaluate the other teams’ posters, and have students use Post-its to leave comments or questions they may have on a poster.
    3. Have teams return to their posters, review the comments and questions on Post-its, select one comment and/or question for the team to respond to.
    4. Conduct a class discussion as the teams take turns summarizing their posters, read aloud the selected comments/questions, and respond to them.
    5. Provide those students whose comments or questions are selected an opportunity to reply to the teams’ responses.
    6. Facilitate the above class interaction while clarifying and correcting any misconceptions or misinformation.
    7. Collect the completed Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment handouts and the team posters for evaluation.
    8. Class 3 Evaluation: The class discussion and collected Gallery Walk: Poster Assessment handouts and the team posters assist teachers in evaluating students’ understanding and knowledge of the common causes, symptoms and treatments of various mental disorders. In addition, teachers can assess the types of local and online resources that students have identified and become aware of after the research activity.
  • extension activities

    1. If possible, invite a guest speaker who is a mental health professional from a local organization to talk about and discuss mental health conditions and resources.
    2. Assign students an independent project to explore and write a report about a medical and scientific career that specializes in mental health research and treatments. Have students use the list of mental health career and professional organizations on “Other Resources” and include at least one interview of a local health professional or an organizational profile.
  • national health education standards

    health education standard 3 – Students will demonstrate the ability to access valid information and products and services to enhance health.

    • 1.12.2. Describe the interrelationships of emotional, intellectual, physical, and social health.
    • 1.12.5. Propose ways to reduce or prevent injuries and health problems.
    • 3.12.1. Evaluate the validity of health information, products and services.
    • 3.12.2. Use resources from home, school and community that provide valid health information.
    • 3.12.4. Determine when professional health services may be required.
    • 3.12.5. Access valid and reliable health products and services.
    • 4.12.3. Demonstrate strategies to prevent, manage or resolve interpersonal conflicts without harming self or others.
    • 4.12.4. Demonstrate how to ask for and offer assistance to enhance the health of self and others.