A lesson plan on learning about mental illness, based on “The voices no one else can hear” article in the Nov.-Dec. 2005 issue of L.A. Youth.

By Libby Hartigan, Managing Editor

Grades: 6-12
Subjects: Language arts, social studies, health
Overview of lesson plan: Students will explore their ideas about mental illness, analyzing what mental illness is and how it is treated.
Suggested time allowance: 45 min.-1 hr.

Objective: Students will better understand mental illness and how it can be treated..

Resources and material:
— pens, paper
— copies of L.A. Youth Nov.-Dec. 2005 issue (one per student)
— blackboard or whiteboard

What words do we use to describe someone who’s mentally ill? Ask your students if they can think of any, and jot some down on the board, words such as crazy, deranged, psycho, loco, insane, mad, unbalanced, touched, demented, lunatic, hysterical.

Many of these words reflect the ways that mental illness has been viewed over time. “Lunatic,” was used to described someone whose periods of insanity were thought to be related to phases of the moon. The word “hysterical,” which has the root of the Greek word hustera for womb, was used to describe a neurotic condition in women which was somehow thought to be connected to their being female.

The stigma associated with mental illness leads people to think that if you’re mentally ill, it’s your fault. It’s because you did something wrong, you’re a bad person or your parents brought you up the wrong way.

Today many of these ideas have been discredited. Yet there doesn’t seem to be agreement on why some people become mentally ill and others don’t. Some people seem to have a chemical imbalance, which they may have inherited, which affects the way their brain works. Others may become mentally ill in response to a painful event, such as the death of someone close to them, being abused or even a traumatic car accident.

There’s also a misconception that only adults are mentally ill. The National Institute of Mental Health states that “In the U.S. today, one in ten children suffer from a mental disorder severe enough to cause some level of impairment.” (Source: www.nimh.nih.gov)

Because it’s a common problem, and one that is not well understood, it’s interesting to read about the experience of this writer, a Los Angeles teenager who hears noises and voices that aren’t really there.

1. Reading. Ask your students to read the article, “The voices no one else can hear” about Brian on pages 20-21.

2. Discussion. A guided discussion can help young people confront some of the important questions raised by this writer’s article. One point is that this writer’s illness is hard to define. Even his own doctors are not sure if he has schizophrenia.

What are the symptoms of this writer’s mental illness? Some possible answers are:
— At first he heard sounds, later on he began hearing voices. The voices told him to hurt himself.
— He doesn’t hear things all the time. The noises come and go.
— He felt alone and unloved.
— He had suicidal thoughts.
— He grabbed a knife and threatened to hurt himself.What type of mental illness does he have?

What type of mental illness does he have?
— His doctors said he might have schizophrenia, but they’re not sure.
— Although it seems to get worse at times of stress, it’s not clear what his illness is caused by.
— It’s easier to say what it is not caused by. This writer didn’t do anything wrong, his parents didn’t commit a terrible mistake in raising him.

Though many people feel that having a mental illness means the end of “normal” life, this writer doesn’t feel that way. The article ends on an optimistic note. Why is he doing better now?
— He has stayed at a group home where he can talk to someone whenever he needs to.
— His parents have told him encouraging things, like, “Hang in there.”
— When he felt bad, he though about all the people who loved him.
— He has gotten medication.
— He has learned to tell someone when he starts hearing things.
— When he needs to, he stays in a psychiatric hospital to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.
— He is hopeful for the future.
— He has more understanding of what is happening, and knows how to deal with it.

3. Writing. Ask students to compare their views on mental illness, which they discussed at the beginning of class, with their views after reading the article. Has this story changed their views of what mentally ill people are like?

Extension exercise:
Ask students to write their reflections on mental illness for L.A. Youth for possible publication. Send to: L.A. Youth, 5967 W. 3rd St., Ste. 301, Los Angeles, CA 90036.