My First Teaching Experience – Teaching Teenagers about Mental Health

When I was in secondary school, I made a life decision. Or at least, I thought I did. After seeing the way some teachers were treated by their class, I decided that I would never in a million years become a teacher. I would never put myself through the misery of being in charge of a room full of hormonal teenagers. My respect for teachers was and still is immense – I would never have the strength to do it, however.

Just a few years later, I found myself doing the exact thing I swore I’d never be doing. I had signed up for a scheme at my medical school to go to secondary schools and teach teenagers there about mental health. It was, in my eyes, an extremely important topic. Of course, I will be biased given my own experiences but I don’t feel that bias is unfounded.

I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. I – dare I say it? – actually enjoyed it.


The whole training for this started about 3 months prior to my actual teaching session. We had lectures from psychiatrists and GPs about mental health, just to make sure that we actually knew what we were going to be talking about. We then had to complete a brief safeguarding course, along with very brief ‘advice sessions’ from proper secondary school teachers. By the end of it, we felt as though we had the minimum amount of skills necessary. Of course, we still lack the experience that teachers have but we were assured that we would have a proper teacher in the room with us. Just in case everyone started throwing chairs at us or something.

As much as I hate to admit it, it seems as though these psychiatry lectures we had are the only pre-clinical psychiatry lectures that we will have. These lectures, of course, were not compulsory for every medical student – it was only if we wanted to go and teach. We will, of course, have psychiatry placements in a few years but I do wonder if we should have more pre-clinical teaching about mental health disorders. They are just as important as physical health issues.

(Note – I am unsure as to what the rules are regarding confidentiality in the classroom. I have therefore changed details slightly for writing purposes and purposefully written so that nobody can be identified)

Making lesson plans

The next bit was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Making a lesson plan. We were given so much sound advice from teachers: don’t make it too long, otherwise the kids will lose attention when the bell goes; make sure you plan for disturbances because they will happen; make sure you don’t speak for the whole time, it needs to be interactive. I was often up late at night deciding how to prepare the lesson. Eventually, me and my group managed to break it down into three parts:

  1. Defining depression and anxiety.
  2. Recognising the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  3. Recognising where to go for help for such issues, and other mental health issues.

This, I reminded myself, was only one lesson I was planning for. Teachers have way more than one lesson. Perhaps with experience they become quicker with these things.

The Morning before

The day I was meant to go and teach, I had my own lectures in the morning. We were covering the pharmacology of illegal drugs and alcohol in the lecture – a topic which I found very interesting. Sadly, though, I was very nervous. I couldn’t concentrate on my lecture.┬áIt’s funny – I was not very nervous about going to see very sick patients on the ward, or going to help in A&E but thought of being in charge of a room full of teenagers was doing a good job at scaring me.

At this point, I still wasn’t sure how to explain the difference between depression and sadness. Of course, I know there is a difference and I can recite the DSM definition of depression – but how would I explain it to a group of 13/14 year olds?

The lecture ended.

Before I knew it, I was on my way to the school. The weather was freezing. I had to get three tubes to get to the place of the school, and it ended up taking me almost an hour to get there. Then, I was walking in the cold towards the school. I couldn’t tell if I was shaking out of nerves or out of the cold. Why, oh why, was I putting myself through this? But then I thought of my own depression. My own admission into a psychiatric unit. My own constant battle, trying to ignore the voices. My own isolation.

I had to go and raise awareness, I thought to myself. I don’t want anyone else to know the reality of what is my reality with mental illness. And the only way I could do this was by going and spreading awareness. I took a deep breath and kept walking.

The lesson!

It was time. Time for the lesson. As I mentioned, we had a teacher in the room with us to keep things in order and I had two fellow medical students with me who would also be teaching. After saying our ‘hello’s’, the class erupted into a chorus of “HI! HELLO!”. I felt as though I were some sort of celebrity. Until a girl said, “Oh come on guys, that’s not even funny.” So they were actually making fun of us. How naive of me.

Then, after we got the attention of the class (with much help from the teacher), we moved on to the first activity. “Right guys!” I said loudly, trying to sound more confident than I felt. “Let’s split the room into two. Group 1 on my right – I want you guys to write down the first word on a post-it note that comes to your mind when you hear the word depression. Group 2 – same thing but for anxiety. Any questions?”

Well, it didn’t go that smoothly, but we can pretend. They immediately got writing. I had underestimated teenagers – they had come up with some absolutely fantastic suggestions. For depression, the most common word was ‘sadness’. I had anticipated this so this was good news for me. For anxiety, the most common word was “nervous”. Again, I felt as though this was expected.

“GUYS!” I shouted, after everyone had finished. I don’t usually shout. In fact, when I later told my friends I shouted, the most common response was: “Were you smiling as you did so? You can never not smile!” I don’t know if I was smiling or not. I got their attention again and proceeded to read off some of the words group 1 had written for ‘depression’.

“I see someone has written ‘pissed off’,” I said, and immediately regretted it. The whole class exploded “OH MY GOODNESS, HE SAID PISSED OFF!” one of them shouted. I looked apologetically at the teacher who calmed everyone down. “Erm…yeah…” I continued, “Anger is common with depression. But let’s go back to sadness – there is a difference between sadness and depression. Does anyone know what it is?”

A few put their hands up and made excellent points. I was impressed, I must say – we are often quick to write off youngsters but they all have so much potential. Teachers do a great job in trying to show them that they have it, but we all must do it. Eventually, I told them depression was an illness. I got a reaction of much surprise from my audience. “Oh yes,” I said, nodding. I was pleased I had taught them something at least.

“Now anxiety,” I went on. “When might you feel anxious or nervous?” Again, I got lots of brilliant suggestions. “Fantastic! Now imagine how you feel before an exam or before a football match or whatever. Imagine feeling like that every second of every day – unable to sleep, unable to function properly. This is what the illness of anxiety is. It really is horrible.”

I hope that they learnt something.

Final thoughts

Of course, there was more to the lesson than what I have described but it will go on for pages and pages. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of teaching. My respect for teachers as ever remains extremely high and has only increased after my own small taster into their profession. It is thoroughly important that we educate our youngsters about mental health issues – only then can we hope to end the stigma in future generations. I can only hope now that what we told everyone today can help them in the future.

I also learnt today just how bright some teenagers are. Every single kid in the classroom had some talent, and I was thoroughly impressed by all of them. We all must make sure we show teenagers that they have this talent. There is nothing worse than talent that is wasted.


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