Lessons change teenage attitudes to mental illness

Teaching school children about common mental health problems can reduce prejudice and negative attitudes towards mental illness, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The research found that teenagers who received just six lessons on mental health showed significantly more sensitivity and empathy towards people with mental health problems. The teenagers also used less negative language to describe mental health problems.

The study, published in the April issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, followed 14 and 15-year-old pupils at two secondary schools in London.

At one school, the pupils attended six 50-minute lessons on mental health issues common among young people: stress, depression, suicide/self-harm, eating disorders, being bullied and learning disabilities. The lessons included discussion, role-playing and internet research, and pupils were shown booklets, factsheets and films. Pupils at the other school did not receive any of these lessons.

The week before the lessons began, pupils in both schools completed questionnaires to determine their knowledge, understanding and attitudes towards mental illness. This was repeated eight months after the lessons finished.

The lessons had a number of positive effects on the pupils´ understanding of mental health problems. Both boys and girls showed more understanding of why some people become depressed or think life is not worth living and how bullied people are affected. They were also more likely to be able to name five mental health difficulties, and were less likely to use stigmatising language.

Dr Paul Naylor, from the University´s School of Heath and Related Research, said: "Children believe from a very early age that psychiatric problems are personal failures and that children who receive psychological treatment are to be despised. This study shows that teaching 14 and 15-year-olds about mental health difficulties helps to reduce stigma by increasing knowledge and promoting positive attitudes. Generally, participating pupils were positive about the importance of lessons on mental health, and said they had learnt much about the lesson topics."

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