How I teach - Listen without prejudice

A safe environment is key when discussing mental health issues

Teaching teenagers about problems such as depression and substance abuse can be a tricky business. This is because a surprising number of young people have personal experience of such disorders, either because a friend or family member has suffered from one or they have themselves.

The topic of eating disorders is especially poignant, given that such problems are most likely to manifest in the 15-19 age bracket, according to a UK-based 2013 study published in medical journal BMJ.

When tackling such socially sensitive subjects in A-level psychology, therefore, I always set a few ground rules. First, we agree as a class that everyone should have a voice and is welcome to air their views without prejudice.

It is always fascinating to hear pupils' opinions of people who are "anorexic" or "fat". Anorexia nervosa, for example, is generally considered to be a psychological problem that needs support, whereas students often seem to believe that those who overeat just need to diet and "sort themselves out".

These arguments form a great basis for talking about how a person's beliefs are shaped by their environment. The role of culture, class and socio-economic background always leads to animated discussion.

Another of my ground rules is that what is revealed in class must be considered confidential and that stories should be left anonymous. If anyone feels uncomfortable, I make sure they know who they can talk to about these issues in and outside school.

I always ask my pupils to consider what they know about issues such as anorexia and how they know it. We dissect teen magazines, newspapers and television adverts in language they feel comfortable with. That said, as they develop as psychology students, they start to avoid colloquial expressions such as "schizo", "mad" and "mental".

We then try to put ourselves in the shoes of sufferers. We may, for example, consider the content of pro-anorexia websites or use mirrors from the physics department to discuss body dysmorphia. By role-playing treatments, we try to understand how different therapies might help to alter what individuals believe about themselves.

However, we never lose sight of the facts and figures about such diseases. Pupils are always shocked by the increasing numbers of boys and men who suffer from eating disorders, and by the fact that anorexia nervosa is generally quoted as having the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder.

Unsurprisingly, many young people are naive about the impact that mental health issues may have on them at some point in their lives, indirectly or otherwise. It is always fascinating to teach such an intrinsically interesting topic.

I just hope that as well as being prepared for their exams, our students start to better understand some of the complexities of mental health and the causes of psychological disorders. Perhaps one day the stigma that is still experienced by those who suffer from mental health problems will become a thing of the past.

Mike Lamb is a biology and psychology teacher and a housemaster at Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex

Top 10 psychology resources

1. Civil obedience

A range of condensed studies and experiments are included in this booklet about the psychology of social influence, which takes the conformity of Nazism as a starting point and moves on to the psychology of disobedience and the rebellion of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

2. Sight to behold

Use this resource to teach about the physiological processes behind sight and discuss how eyesight and vision affect how people think and live their lives.

3. Psych yourself up

With these handy revision worksheets, encourage group discussion of the biological psychology of stress and treatments for it, from drugs to biofeedback.

4. Research rules

This interactive quiz on research methods from Learningpod will help students to test themselves and teachers to create their own research questionnaires for classes.

5. Taboo terms

This fast-paced team challenge adapted from board game Taboo is great for plenaries or revision of psychology key terms.

6. The price of fame

Discuss how celebrity culture has permeated society, and where it came from, with this PowerPoint featuring cameos from Gok Wan, Cheryl Cole and Brangelina.

7. Talking heads

These short video clips feature young people talking about their experiences of depression and are great for stimulating class discussion.

8. Shrink rapt

Students will thank you for these one-page sheets distilling the lives of famous psychologists into a handful of bullet points. Mary Ainsworth, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein and Lev Vygotsky are among those who get the treatment.

9. Looks can kill

Professor Susie Orbach, who treated Princess Diana for bulimia, talks in this TrueTube film about the Western obsession with physical perfection, the psychological damage it does and why there's more to our identity than our looks. It is an excellent starting point for discussion.

10. Top of the world

Use this presentation and mind-bending follow-up tasks to help students get their heads around Richard Gregory's top-down theory of perception.

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