Lesson 3: The Science of Mental Health

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Pre-Class Preparation

1. For Activity 1, draw a large human body diagram on a board or large poster paper. Below is is an image for reference. Do not write in any of the labels. Including specific organs could be helpful.

2. For Activities 2 and 4, print and cut out the cards linked below. If there are more students in the classroom than there are individual cards, you can reprint and create duplicates.


Activity 1: Anatomy of a Panic Attack

1. After students have settled, explain that two clips from the Warrior Within film will be screened. Hand out Post-It notes and ask students to write down at least 3 physiological signs of distress they notice in Karolina during these clips.

2. Show the following two clips from the film:

  • Karolina in the classroom, reacting to seeing the test on her desk.
  • Karolina in the forest, reacting to seeing the desk in the tunnel.

3. Ask students to come up to the diagram on the board and stick on notes to appropriate areas of the body where they noticed physiological signs of distress.

4. Verbalize that Karolina was experiencing a panic attack. The topic was covered briefly in Lesson 2, Activity 3. Write in any other symptoms from the above image that are missing from the body diagram in class. Explain that panic attacks may occur as a result of high levels of anxiety. Emphasize that coping mechanisms for these sorts of attacks vary from individual to individual, and will be described more in the following lesson. However, if students have any further questions about this topic, they may ask their guidance counsellor for more resources and information.


Activity 2: Stress-Response Dramatization

1. The cards from the Role Cards Template should have been printed and cut out. Gather the cards into a basket. Explain to students that they are to pick a role from the basket without looking, and perform the actions outlined by that card in two different dramatizations.

2. Ask students to stay in their seats when they are not performing their role. When following instructions on their given card, they may call out to the class.

3. The first dramatization involves the body’s response to a short-term stressor. The pathway is as follows:

  • The short-term stressor finds the hypothalamus and high fives them.
  • The hypothalamus finds the adrenal medulla and high fives them.
  • The adrenal medulla releases epinephrine/norepinephrine.
  • Epinephrine/norepinephrine high fives the following organs/systems:
    • Cardiovascular system.
    • Respiratory system.
    • Liver.
  • After being high fived, each organ/system explains the effect that the hormone has had on them. See these explanations in the Table of Roles in the Stress Response Dramatization.

4. The second dramatization involves the body’s response to a long-term stressor. The pathway is as follows:

  • The long-term stressor finds the hypothalamus and high fives them.
  • The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF).
  • CRF high fives the anterior pituitary.
  • The anterior pituitary releases adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH).
  • ACTH high fives the adrenal cortex.
  • The adrenal cortex releases mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids.
  • The mineralocorticoids high five the following organs/systems:
    • Kidneys.
    • Cardiovascular system.
  • The glucocorticoids high five the following organs/ systems:
    • Immune system.
    • Digestive system.
  • After being high fived, each organ/system explains the effect that the hormone has had on them. See these explanations in the Table of Roles in the Stress Response Dramatization.

Activity 3: Fear and the Limbic System

The objective of this activity is to explain how the brain’s limbic system controls behaviour through emotions, and why anxiety is natural but may be more extreme in some individuals. These topics are introduced by showing a clip from Jurassic Park (1993) to elicit fear among students and allowing them to question what caused the feeling.

1. Before playing the video, suggest that students with sensitivity to stressful movie scenes may sit outside the classroom and not take part in this section of the activity. Ask remaining students to think about FEAST and pay close attention to the sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions of their body as they watch the movie clip.

2. Play the video below. When it is over, ask students to raise their hand if they felt scared during the scene. Note that although there was no legitimate threat to everyone’s safety by watching the clip, the fear still persisted. Ask students where they believe these emotions are being activated.

3. Hand out the Student Worksheet for students to follow along. 

4. Read from the speaking notes: 

  • The limbic system is comprised of the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and several other structures in the brain. These areas are responsible for the body’s physiological regulation according to internal and external stimuli.
  • Explain the function of the hypothalamus:
    • The hypothalamus is responsible for two things. Firstly, it allows the body to remain at a set point called homeostasis by regulating thirst, hunger, response to pain, pleasure, anger, and more. Secondly, it controls the autonomic nervous system, which concerns itself with automatic bodily functions such as pulse and breathing.
  • Input may be received from various sources across the body, such as visual information from the optic nerve. The hypothalamus may respond to this input by adjusting autonomic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, etc. or releasing hormones through the pituitary gland.
    • Prompt students to answer the question, “What did my hypothalamus do during the video?” on their worksheet. They may write or draw their answers. Allow them to consult with neighbours as well, but warn that they only have two minutes to finish the question.
  • Explain the function of thalamus: the thalamus communicates sensory impulses to the cerebral cortex, which makes up the majority of the brain. The various areas of the cortex process different types of information, such as pain or temperature. Approximately 98% of all sensory input is relayed through the thalamus, with only olfactory information (smell) being transmitted elsewhere.
    • Prompt students to answer the question, “What did my thalamus do during the video?” on their worksheet. Allow two minutes for writing or drawing.
  • Explain the function of the hippocampus: the hippocampus converts experiences in the present (short-term memory) into concepts that can be remembered later (long-term memory). This allows the brain to “learn” from events and access older memories for reference.
    • Prompt students to answer the question, “What did my hippocampus do during the video?” on their worksheet. Allow two minutes for writing or drawing.
  • Explain the function of the amygdala: the amygdala allows us to feel emotions and perceive them in other people, especially fear. This is an important survival mechanism as it causes us to identify and respond to danger quickly.
    • Prompt students to answer the question, “What did my amygdala do during the video?” on their worksheet. Allow two minutes for writing or drawing.
  • Explain the pathway of emotional response: In the pathway of emotional response, sensory input is first processed in the thalamus, and a portion of this information is sent to the amygdala while another portion is sent to the cerebral cortex, including the frontal lobe. The information will reach the amygdala first and there will be an immediate emotional response and physical response through the release of neurotransmitters. This reaction is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” reflex. The hypothalamus is alerted quickly to the amygdala’s activity and responds accordingly.
  • Explain the general function of structures in the frontal lobe: The frontal lobe has a variety of substructures that control motor function, problem solving, memory, language, judgement, behaviour, and possibly more responsibilities.
  • In the pathway of emotional response, the information from the thalamus travelling to the frontal lobe will take its time due to evaluation of the information along the way. The prefrontal cortex is an especially significant part of the frontal lobe as it is involved with reasoning and logic. The frontal lobe will also communicate with other sections of the brain about necessary sentiments of pain, pleasure, aggression, anger, and panic. Since the dominant amygdala has already begun its initial response, any further evaluation coming from the prefrontal cortex must be very strong in order to change this response.
  • Everyone experiences this fear response system; however, it can be slightly different for those suffering from anxiety. Their amygdala may trigger fear responses too easily or too often, or their prefrontal cortex may be unable to use logic to calm down the fear reflex. Thus, their reaction continues for an extended period of time and can be characterized as a panic attack.
    • Prompt students to answer the question, “What did my frontal lobe do during the video?” on their worksheet. Allow two minutes for writing or drawing.
  • Finally, ask students if anyone wants to share their answers for each of the sheet questions, and choose two to three responses.

Slideshow: The Science of Mental Health

1. Open the speaker notes by clicking the gear icon and follow along. The slideshow includes four topics with corresponding activities: Examining Brain Activity, Causes of Mental Illness, Medication, and Brain Reward Pathways.