Examining Society’s Perceptions of Mental Illness

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Perceptions of

Mental Illness
A Unit Plan for

Eleventh Grade

Duration: Six Weeks
Alyssa Statz


Spring 2011

“Examining Society’s Perception of Mental Illness” is the fourth unit in the yearlong plan that focuses on studying how contemporary texts reflect our social climate while appealing to readers on an emotional level. In the previous unit, students looked at “Sexuality and Society”. In this unit, students investigated how integral sexuality is to contributing to one’s identity and how sexuality can be greatly influenced by societal expectations and pressures. The entire unit aims to educate students about how expansive and dominant our society can be in affecting individual actions, decisions, and identities in general. This specific unit focusing on Mental Illness will provide knowledge about the realities of living with a disorder, give insight into how stigmas began, provide ideas as to how to correct false presumptions, and promote empathy and compassion in the students to treat all people, especially those who differ from themselves, with respect.

The class is an 11th Grade Contemporary Texts in Society course. The ability levels of the students range, but most are able to keep up with class work with very few issues. There is a large emphasis on class discussion, group work, application of lessons to their own lives, and reflective writing projects to enhance students’ interest in the texts and show how they are interpreting the lessons. This class does require substantial amounts of reading; however, the texts are extremely powerful and provide insights into the complicated world of living with a

mental illness. The students will be asked to focus on some of the main themes in the texts, contemplate what the author is trying to say by depicting mental disease in such a manner, and then ask how the text reflects our own society. The texts successfully show an essential aspect of human existence that is necessary for the students to examine in order to truly understand the central message of this unit.

The Colorado Content Area Standards for Eleventh Grade Reading, Writing, and Communicating are used in this unit. Students have many opportunities to display their abilities to listen intently (class discussions, lecture), orally present their own ideas (discussions, final project presentation), read for various purposes (discovering symbols/metaphors, characterization, etc), write with a specific purpose (summaries, essays, creative writing), and conduct formal and informal research (rereading the text, final research project, etc.). The lessons include differentiation ideas to aid students who may need some specialization. The activities employ visual learning, auditory perceptions, kinesthetic movement, creative representations to show understanding, and oral sharing and exchanging of ideas with classmates. The students have many opportunities to improve in areas they may struggle with and participate in activities in which they already excel. The lesson plans are not regulated and static; but instead aim to appeal to all learners and promote their growth as students.

Central Texts in Unit:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey (novel)

A Beautiful Mind (film)

The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath (novel)

Rationale for Unit Plan

The unit “Examining Society’s Perception of Mental Illness” will ask students to examine the stigma associated with victims of mental illness, discover where this stigma originates, see the effects of mental disease on people who suffer from them through various texts, and urge students to evaluate their own thoughts regarding individuals who differ from themselves. Students will spend six weeks investigating answers to the main question of “How are our thoughts about mental illness shaped from cultural/societal perceptions?” This will require the students to differentiate between perception and reality and ask them to look at a current issue through a clear lens untarnished by previous experiences or misconceptions.

While the students may not interact with people suffering from mental disease on a regular basis, they are exposed to people unlike themselves every single day. One of the bigger pictures associated with this unit is gaining a sense of humanity and understanding for all people. The students will have the opportunity to reevaluate how they treat others, discover why they may treat people differently, and recognize the factors that affect how they relate to others. It is important to educate young people about the incredible diversity and adversity they will face once they enter the real world. This unit will serve as a preparation for them in strengthening their levels of compassion and questioning the various standards that society seems to embed in everybody. They will learn to think for themselves and realize what ideals are meaningful to them. It is my goal to eliminate ignorance and discrimination from my students before they enter a world where patience is dwindling and empathy is under appreciated.

To gain a thorough understanding of mental illness and society’s perceptions on the mentally ill, students will be investigating three main texts during the six week unit. The first text is the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Some parents have concerns about the sexual encounters, profane language use, smoking and alcohol usage, intense scenes of electro-therapy, and emotionally disturbed characters in the novel. However, I would not expose the students to anything that did not educate them about the realities of mental disease and treatment centers. The characters display that individuals with disorders are capable human beings who are underestimated in their abilities to love, grow, or contribute to society. Above all, the book highlights how sympathetic and full of depth the characters are. The novel is beautifully written and essential in illustrating the life and thoughts of the mentally diseased. It also provides commentary about the psychiatric medical profession and insights into how therapies and medications affect the patients who undergo them. There is no doubt that the novel provokes very tough questions, but it is the goal of the unit to have students truly evaluate a current social issue and consider their own thoughts about this tough topic. The class will handle the sexual encounters and intense therapy sessions thematically by examining how these scenes contribute to the importance of the novel’s overall message. The students will understand how such extreme situations provide commentary about the bigger issue of truly delving into the lives and experiences of people living in a mental health ward.

Following the novel, students will view a film titled A Beautiful Mind. This movie is about a man who suffers from Schizophrenia and has his entire life altered by the disease. There are emotionally intense scenes in the film that show insulin-shock therapy, the negative side effects of medications on a patient, and the complete loss of reality the main character experiences. Since these scenes are based on true events, it is important that students witness the realities of disease on a man who actually lived through Schizophrenia in real life. The film is powerful in how it shows in great detail how mental disease can affect an individual’s profession, personal life, and entire future. I understand that some parents may question if spending two class periods watching a film is beneficial to their children. Since this class investigates various “texts”, it is important to have students learn to study literature, poetry, song, and film in similar ways to extract meaning from all modes. While viewing the film, they will be responsible for “reading” it like a book and establishing how the story is told, what choices were made in the film, citing “big ideas”, and drawing conclusions about what the film conveyed. This film is regarded as an essential text and will be a paramount educational tool in providing the students with significant information about how mental disease can take over someone’s life entirely.

The final text the class will study is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This novel depicts a woman’s descent into madness and chronicles her failed attempts to cure her disease with medication and psychiatric help. Of all the texts, this novel most establishes which factors in society can influence someone to breakdown mentally and question their own sanity. It powerfully describes how her attempts to get better failed at the hands of those who were supposed to “cure her.” Students will be able to specify which societal expectations most influenced her decision to self-destruct. Not only will the novel incite discussions about the pressure society places on individuals, it will also evoke thoughts about why and how individuals allow others to control their actions. There are emotionally trying scenes describing suicide attempts that may be difficult for some students to read. However, this is an important reality that accompanies many mental illnesses. It will only enhance the classes understanding about the intensity and life-altering effects of mental illness. These scenes will also provide the opportunity for students to learn about suicide, its causes, prevention strategies, and observe how much societal pressure can cause the deterioration of an individual.

Author and educator Peter Smagorinsky iterates in his book Teaching English by Design that teaching units addressing social issues, ethical dilemmas, and civic awareness will help prepare students to become more understanding, productive members of our world. There are too many intolerances and iniquities in our current society, but our youth has the opportunity to create a better place in the future. This unit “anticipates the need for a more compassionate society” and aims to ignite the recognition in students that there is a need for change that they can help instigate (Smagorinsky, 145).

All of the texts featured in this unit differ in how they portray mental illness, but all will provoke powerful questions in the students about how they can alter their perceptions of those who are mentally ill, and alter how they treat others who differ from themselves in general. The main characters in each text provide unique voices that tell stories of pain, failed attempts at healing, and the heartbreaking disregard they experience from those around them. It is my hope that the class recognizes a connection between themselves and these characters, feeling compassion for their situations and brainstorming possible future solutions to the problems described in the pieces. They will be able to take the lessons they learn from this unit far beyond the walls of their high school. The most valuable lessons learned in schools are those that are truly beneficial in day-to-day life and cause us to become better people in how we relate to others.

Understanding By Design Unit Template

Title of Unit

Examining Society’s Perceptions of Mental Illness

Grade Level

Eleventh Grade

Curriculum Area

Language Arts/ English

Time Frame

Five Week Unit

Developed By

Alyssa Statz

Identify Desired Results (Stage 1)

Content Standards

Colorado Department of Education Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating, Grade 11
Standard 1.1 Verbal and nonverbal cues impact the intent of communication

b. Deliver formal oral presentations for intended purpose and audience, using effective

verbal and nonverbal communication

Standard 2.1 Complex literary texts require critical reading approaches to effectively interpret and

evaluate meaning

a. Use Key Ideas and Details to: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support

analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,

including determining where the text leaves matter

Standard 3.2 Elements of informational and persuasive texts can be refined to inform or influence an


b. Write informative/ explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts,

and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and

analysis of content
Standard 4.2 Complex situations require critical thinking across multiple disciplines

a. Analyze the logic of complex situations by questioning the purpose, question at issue,

information, points of view, implications and consequences, inferences, assumptions

and concepts.
Standard 4.3 Evaluating quality reasoning includes the value of intellectual character such as

humility, empathy, and confidence

d. Evaluate the reasoning of self and others for quality, strong-sense thinking


Essential Questions

Overarching Understanding



There is often a social stigma associated with those who are mentally ill.
The victims of mental illness suffer from effects of their diseases that are out of their control, yet evoke feelings of dissension from society.
The treatment of those with mental disease is not always effective, appropriate, or humane.
People with mental disease are still contributing members of society who should be respected and regarded with understanding.
Texts that discuss mental illness can help us better comprehend what life is like for someone who suffers from a mental disorder or disease.

Who decides who is “crazy’?
Are our thoughts about mental illness shaped from personal experiences or cultural/social perceptions?
What can people do to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness?
Why does this stigma exist and when did it begin?

What characteristics do the mentally ill possess that differ from the “normal” behavior of others?
What treatments are available for those with mental illness?
What factors contribute to someone descending into madness?
How do the character’s experiences in the texts we examine either reflect or discount the idea that society treats the mentally ill unjustly?

Related Misconceptions

People with mental illnesses are “crazy.”
Mentally ill people have the ability to control their actions, but simply choose not to.
Individuals with mental disorders are less intelligent, creative, or productive than those who do not have a mental disease.


Students will know…


Students will be able to…

Characteristics of various mental diseases
How psychiatric hospitals operate and treat their patients
The misconceptions society has regarding individuals with mental diseases
The positive abilities and productive skills mentally ill people possess and evidence through their actions

Reflect upon their own misconceptions or mistreatments of the mentally ill
Transfer what they have learned about society’s disillusionments and alter their own actions toward people who are considered mentally ill
Recognize the opportunity for those with mental illness to make a contribution to society
Define what they consider to be humane treatment and apply that definition to various situations in their lives

Assessment Evidence (Stage 2)

Performance Task Description


To have students gain an understanding about the characteristics, behaviors, treatments, and social perceptions/misconceptions of various mental illnesses


Students will be researchers, composers, presenters, and then listeners


Their classmates and teacher


Groups will serve as “experts” on a particular mental disease and then educate their classmates about their information


Groups will produce informative brochures for each member of the class and perform an oral presentation that includes all essential information regarding the specific illness they researched


Standard 1.1 Verbal and nonverbal cues impact the intent of communication

c. Deliver oral talks with clear enunciation, vocabulary, and

appropriate organization; nonverbal gestures; and tone
Standard 1.2 Validity of a message is determined by its accuracy and relevance

b. Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse

formats and media in order to make informed

decisions and solve problems

Standard 2.2 Ideas synthesized from informational texts serve a specific purpose

a. Use Key Ideas and Details to: Designate a purpose for reading

expository texts and use new learning to complete

a specific task

Standard 4.1 Self-designed research provides insightful information, conclusions, and possible solutions

b. Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and

digital sources, using advanced searches effectively

Other Evidence

Student groups will be submitting a works cited page that includes all resources they used throughout the project.
Students will also submit an outline that organizes what they will be saying in their oral presentation, who will be delivering the information, and why this information is important to the class
After all presentations have concluded, students will write self-reflections about their efforts, the efforts of their group members, whether or not this project deepened their meaning about mental illness, what information they feel is most significant, and how they will use this information in the future

Learning Plan (Stage 3)

Where are your students headed? Where have they been? How will you make sure the students know where they are going?

Students have recently completed a unit on Sexuality in Society, meaning they have observed the power and influence society has on the individual. In this unit on Mental Illness they will continue to explore how society influences the actions of others and often stigmatizes individuals who are “different” than the majority. By the end of the year, the culmination of all the units will have provided the students will a myriad of examples of how their compassion and empathy is needed in society. They will recognize the power of their voices and that he injustices that currently plague our world can be corrected.

How will you hook students at the beginning of the unit?

Students will study how mental illness has been regarded and treated throughout history. Much of the information is shocking, but necessary for them to understand how far we have come, and yet how far we still have to go.

What events will help students experience and explore the big idea and questions in the unit? How will you equip them with needed skills and knowledge?

Students will perform hands-on activities that literally ask them to live a day in the life of someone who resides in a psychiatric ward. The texts also serve as incredibly accurate and powerful resources that depict the lives of the characters in very impactful ways.

How will you cause students to reflect and rethink? How will you guide them in rehearsing, revising, and refining their work?

At the conclusion of most daily lessons, students are asked to discuss with a partner, creatively write, or visually represent what they discovered that day. Summary and reflection not only shows understanding, but asks them to further consider the information they had just gained.

How will you help students to exhibit and self-evaluate their growing skills, knowledge, and understanding throughout the unit?

Their individual journals ask for their personal insights about specific topics and reflect upon how deeply there are absorbing the lessons. For many of their in-class activities, students are asked to share what they have done with their classmates. This creates a sense of responsibility and ownership that ensures quality work.

How will you tailor and otherwise personalize the learning plan to optimize the engagement and effectiveness of ALL students, without compromising the goals of the unit?

Many activities in the lessons utilize group work and interactive production, meaning students depend on one another to find an answer to a problem to complete the task. This is in line with the overall message of the unit in that people can work together to solve problems, rather than always independently pursuing the answer. The notion of exploration is central to the course.

How will you organize and sequence the learning activities to optimize the engagement and achievement of ALL students?

In each lesson, students will never be sitting still for the entire class. There is an alternating sequence of lecture, discussion, interactive activities, group listing, individual writing, and sharing work with the class. The activities really focus on appealing to all learners and creating an environment that is interactive, educational, impactful, and thought-provoking.

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