Walking the talk – Reducing the stigma of mental illness in the elementary classroom

By Ron Muller
March 6, 2015

Teaching is a profession that can be extremely rewarding yet highly challenging, especially when one is expected to teach a wide spectrum of students in the mainstream classroom.

Too often, teachers are left to their own device on how to help children with a wide range of learning disabilities and mental health issues. This may explain why in a 2011 national survey a vast majority of teachers expressed student mental health as their major concern (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, July 2011). Three years later, teachers were polled to assess federal election priorities with a view to the classroom, and child and youth mental health was identified by 95% of teachers as the number one issue. (CTF, 2014)

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2015), 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime and mental illness will indirectly affect all Canadians sometime during their life whether it is through a family member, a friend or a colleague. Because schools are microcosms of society at large, these statistics are both relevant and applicable to today’s classrooms.

For the teacher who is attempting to manage both overt and covert behaviours in students with mental illness while attempting to maximize all students’ potential cognitively, affectively, physically and socially, this can prove to be both a daunting task and, difficult balancing act. This is a dilemma that I personally have encountered on a regular basis during my own teaching practice. Not only can these episodes be frightening to the student who is experiencing these feelings but also to those who are witnessing them.

For individuals living with mental illness the stigma they experience can not only be debilitating but life threatening. According to Sartorius (2002), stigma surrounding mental illness has been recognized as the primary obstacle to providing mental health care services (as cited in Steele, 2013). With this in mind, Steele (2013) is quick to point out that the reduction of said stigma would thus seem to be a good idea and to achieve this, attitudes and beliefs towards individuals with mental illnesses must be changed.  Steele (2013) eloquently states that  “children and adolescents have been identified as a promising target group for stigma-reduction interventions as it is during these developmental periods that, attitudes are consolidated and entrenched” (n.p.).  Therefore it makes perfect sense to start these courageous conversations in the classroom.

In order to start these conversations, I have students discuss the signs, symptoms, treatments and preventative measures of various physical conditions and mental illnesses so they may understand that one illness does not take precedence over another when someone is unwell. For example, I may pose the questions such as: “How many of you have been given an antibiotic and stopped taking it even though the prescription was not finished and then you got sick again? “How is this different from someone who suffers from depression who discontinues their medication because they no longer feel depressed and they then relapse?” “What names are used on the school grounds or in the media to describe people with mental illness?” I also have them consider how they would feel if people treated them poorly or called them derogatory names simply because they were unhealthy.

In other words, not only is it important to teach about mental illness from a clinical perspective, but from a social justice lens as well. By doing so, I have found that children gain a better understanding that being unwell physically is no different than being unwell mentally and  that both need to be treated. In addition, I teach them calling people names such as, “crazy” and “nuts” is not only inappropriate but discriminatory in nature.

If children are not taught that such language is inappropriate they may normalize this type of reaction towards people who are mentally ill and continue to perpetuate such myths by repeating such statements and internalizing them as fact. As educators, we must be aware that if we do not take the time out to educate our students on mental health issues and debunking many of the myths associated with mental illness, we could possibly be contributing or exacerbating the stigma associated with it.

Teaching from a lens of social justice will allow us to create windows and mirrors in our classroom. This means students can see themselves and others reflected in all aspects of learning and teaching. Teaching from this perspective opens the door to critical thought and teaches students empathy.

Also, as an educator I have come to the conclusion that I must be conscious as to how to react and respond to behavioural episodes within the classroom, because I am always being scrutinized by my students. Not only what I communicate both verbally and nonverbally is under examination but how I communicate it is as well. When a student makes a negative comment towards another student or says something inadvertently, I have learned I cannot simply ignore such behavior. By doing so, I give it agency and I am communicating nonverbally to all of my students that this behaviour is acceptable. Sometimes what we don’t say speaks louder than what we do say. Instead of ignoring or circumventing such incidents, I feel as if they should be used as teachable moments for open discussion.

In conclusion, I have found within my own practice that having courageous conversations with my students, teaching them through the lens of social justice, and responding to behavioural incidents appropriately, I am creating an environment conducive to learning for all students where they feel valued and appreciated. In other words, not only am I talking the talk, but I am in fact walking the talk.


CANADIAN MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION (January 2015). “Fast Facts about mental illness.” (Fact Sheet). Retrieved from:

CANADIAN TEACHERS’ FEDERATION (July 2011). “The Voice of Canadian Teachers on Teaching and Learning.” Ottawa.

STEELE, D. (March 1ST, 2013). “Fighting mental illness stigma in the classroom. In The Mental Elf. Retrieved from:

Ron Muller is a grade six teacher at Tompkins Elementary School in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, and a member of the CTF Advisory Committee on Diversity and Human Rights. Ron maintains an educator's blog on depression.

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