The Science of Mental Illness has several objectives. One is to introduce students to the key concept that mental illnesses have a biological basis and are therefore not that different from other illnesses or diseases. Through inquiry-based activities, students gain a better understanding of what mental illnesses are—and what they are not.
A second objective is to convey to students how science can help us make informed decisions. Scientific evidence helps us understand the world around us and gives us the foundation for improving choices about our personal health and the health of our community.
There is a great deal that scientists do not yet understand about mental illnesses. Continuing scientific research into the causes, treatment, and, ultimately, cures for mental illnesses will benefit everyone who is affected by them, either directly or indirectly. Because the mission of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) includes helping the public understand what is known about mental illnesses, the Institute believes that education is important.
The lessons in this module encourage students to think about the relationships among knowledge, choice, behavior, and human health in this way:
Knowledge (what is known and not known) + Choice = Power
Power + Behavior = Enhanced Human Health
The final objective of this module is to encourage students to think in terms of these relationships now and as they grow older.
One challenge for science teachers is to make science meaningful to students. Middle school students want to see the relevance of the material to their lives. The lessons in this module present fundamental information about mental illnesses. At some time in their young lives, many students have already experienced someone who has a mental illness, whether it be a family member, a friend, a schoolmate, or someone at a public event. These experiences and interactions with someone who has a mental illness can make adolescents (and adults) feel uncomfortable and confused because they don’t understand what is going on. Students can apply the knowledge they gain from this module as they encounter new situations and make decisions about their lives.
In addition to learning some basic information about mental illnesses, the lessons ask students to practice several important skills related to scientific inquiry. Students will practice their skills of observation, problem solving, critical thinking, and data analysis. The lessons also offer an opportunity to integrate science with other disciplines, including health and language arts.
“Many of the students didn’t know what mental illness was or thought mentally ill people were crazy at the beginning of the unit. By the end, they realized that mental illness was just another disease, they weren’t scared of the words mental illness and seemed very accepting of mental illnesses. It really changed their perspective and educated them.”—Field-Test Teacher
“The materials were well written for this age level. The materials covered a difficult topic that is not touched upon in most schools. The questions in the materials were probing and led students to new conceptualizations about mental illness.”—Field-Test Teacher
“The inquiry-based method of teaching allowed students to discover a great deal on their own. The activities got the students involved and interested in learning the material.”—Field-Test Teacher
“Students mentioned that they were amazed that they had learned so much.”—Field-Test Teacher
“I liked that I learned that mental illness is not something to look at negatively.”—Field-Test Student
“The information was pretty clear. It was interesting and really made you think. I think it is because a lot of it was stuff that could happen to people our age.”—Field-Test Student
“It teaches you that people that have mental illness are people just like the rest of society. They can be treated with help and medicine.”—Field-Test Student
“It helped me understand mental diseases; it helped eliminate some of the myths about mental illness.”—Field-Test Student
The Science of Mental Illness meets many of the criteria by which teachers and their programs are assessed:
In addition, the module provides a means for professional development. Teachers can engage in new and different teaching practices like those described in this module without completely overhauling their entire program. In Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, Susan Loucks-Horsley et al.16 write that replacement modules such as this one “offer a window through which teachers get a glimpse of what new teaching strategies look like in action.” By experiencing a short-term unit like this one, teachers can “change how they think about teaching and embrace new approaches that stimulate students to problem solve, reason, investigate, and construct their own meaning for the content.” The use of supplements like this one can encourage reflection and discussion and stimulate teachers to improve their practices by focusing on student learning through inquiry.
Next: Implementing the Module