Do Students Know What Mental Illness Feels Like?

Teens are told to reach out if they need help, but may not know when that is. A new curriculum plan aims to close that knowledge gap.


It’s a difficult truth, but half of all mental health disorders emerge before students graduate from high school. While experts agree that schools are uniquely positioned to reach this demographic, there is a gap between what is being taught and the knowledge that students need.

There are few proven educational tools to teach young Canadians how to recognize when they need help. Add to that the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and the result is that only 1 in 6 students who are struggling actually access professional support.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa, University of Guelph, and Dalhousie University developed a new curriculum plan to address the knowledge gap. The authors were concerned that the existing Healthy Living course primarily covered wellness only. While coping strategies are important, they believe that students need to be armed with direct knowledge of the signs of mental illness so they can learn to recognize them.

Their curriculum plan tackles mental health literacy and stigma head on, and encourages students to recognize symptoms and seek help.

The study recruited 24 high schools in the Ottawa area, with a total of 534 students participating at an average age of 16.5 years. As a randomized controlled trial, each school was randomly assigned to either proceed with learning as usual, to use the new curriculum plan, or to use the new plan with follow-up e-learning tools. All teachers received training in their respective learning plans.

Reaching beyond wellness, the new curriculum guide includes several modules covering not only information on specific mental illnesses, but also what it’s like to experience one. The course materials include classroom activities and video interviews of youth with mental illness, with a specific objective to reduce stigma and normalize help-seeking behaviour.

Students’ knowledge and attitudes towards mental illness were assessed using questionnaires before and after their respective classes at school. The researchers found significant improvements in mental health knowledge and a reduction in stigma in both study arms using the new curriculum, compared to students in classes learning as usual. They also found that the new curriculum led to more students seeking professional help when they needed it.

The authors stress that mental health education needs to be age appropriate, and more work is still needed to develop tools for even younger audiences. It’s not enough to focus on maintaining wellness alone, because that leaves a dangerous knowledge gap with no obvious solutions when people are experiencing clinical symptoms of mental illness. Removing barriers to early intervention and building help-seeking behaviours has benefits in the long term, helping people develop healthy habits and attitudes that extend into their adult lives.

Educators and other citizens who want to access the free tools can visit the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide online.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.