Mental Health 1: Human Behavior

What You Need

Mental Health 1: Human Behavior Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To introduce students to the study of human behavior and to develop their ideas about the importance of understanding mental health.


This lesson is the first of three lessons on mental health and human behavior.

Mental Health 1: Human Behavior provides students with a sound introduction and historical overview of the important figures and discoveries that have greatly advanced the study of human behavior since the early 1900s.

Mental Health 2: Bedlam gives students an up-close, personal look at Bedlam, the world’s first mental health asylum, and the kind of life and treatment that mentally ill people received before the 20th century.

Mental Health 3: Mental Health Through Literature examines how mental illness has been portrayed in the arts while highlighting for students a more insightful way to further develop their ideas about human behavior.

In elementary school, students should have learned that all people experience a variety of emotions, yet they often deal with their feelings or personal problems differently. Students also learn that talking to someone about their feelings and problems can help them, but that human beings often remain confused about why others act the way they do (and even about their own feelings and behavior). As a result, students at this level should understand that people differ in how they cope with stressful situations—whether internal or external—and that they often cope by denying there is a problem in the first place. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 147–149.)

By the time students enter high school, they probably would like to have a clearer understanding of why people behave as they do. While the world itself can be extremely confusing and stressful, dealing with unexplainable feelings and behavior can often be even more puzzling. That is why it is important at this stage of their development to expose them to the "general truths about social and psychological processes." Regarding health, it is worth pointing out that students of all ages tend to focus on the physical aspects of health and pay less attention to the mental and social aspects. The lessons in this series are intended to help students develop their ideas about the importance of understanding mental health.

In general, students at this level should come to realize that good mental health involves the interaction of psychological, biological, physiological, social, and cultural systems. Good mental health generally is regarded as the ability to cope with the ordinary circumstances people encounter in their personal, professional, and social lives. Ideas about what constitutes good mental health vary from one culture to another and from one time period to another. (This fact is probably the most important insight students can gain about mental health.) Moreover, students should be able to grasp the concept that what they may consider to be insane behavior could very well be viewed as simple eccentricity or divine inspiration by other people, for example, in Middle Eastern cultures. Similarly, differences in the ways cultures treat abnormal mental states can also differ widely; whereas one culture may prescribe therapy or drug remedies, other, more traditional cultures may promote prayer or social involvement to alleviate the ills of the person. (Science for All Americans, pp. 82–84.)

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
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Planning Ahead

Since this Web resource includes numerous pages and a few interactive activities, it is highly recommended that students have online access for this lesson.


As an interesting and constructive way to start the lesson (and the series), have students review their present knowledge of mental health and human behavior by soliciting and then gauging their general ideas, beliefs, and feelings about these topics. One way to do this is to have students evaluate the ideas underlying the lesson benchmarks.

First, write the following statements on the board and have one or two students read them aloud.

  • Human beings differ greatly in how they cope with emotions and may therefore puzzle one another.
  • Ideas about what constitutes good mental health and proper treatment for abnormal mental states vary from one culture to another and from one time period to another.

Then use the following, thought-provoking questions as a general basis for this exploratory warm-up and discussion. Allow other related questions to arise during the discussion.

Note: Encourage a variety of answers and reactions. Accept all responses and do not provide explanations. The purpose of this activity is simply to draw out what students know about mental health and human behavior and how they perceive the two. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for this activity.

Ask students:

  • What do these statements mean?
  • What are some examples of how "human beings differ in how they cope with emotions. . ."?
  • What are some examples of ways that different cultures and time periods differ in how people (a) think or thought about mental health and (b) how they treat or treated “abnormal mental states”?
  • In your opinion, what constitutes good mental health? bad mental health? mental illness?
  • How and why do you think that one person's behavior could be viewed as "mentally ill" in one culture or time period, but not in another?
  • How do you think and feel about mental illness or odd human behavior? Why?

As a way to lead students into the core of the lesson, ask the following questions at the end of this activity:

  • What do you think life was like for a mentally ill person a century ago?
  • How do you think mentally ill people were treated as compared to today?
  • What are some important medical, scientific, or technological breakthroughs that you know of that have improved the quality of life for the mentally ill?

(Accept all responses and encourage students to support their feelings and views.)


Using the Human Behavior student esheet, students will explore the PBS Then and Now: Human Behavior website, which contains an overview of the important figures and milestones in the history and evolution of mental health treatment and human behavior since 1900.

Divide the class into two groups. Identify one group as "People" and the other group as "Discoveries." Students assigned to the "People" group will read about the following key figures of the 20th century whose work impacted on or changed the way we view human behavior or treat mental illness:

  • Jean-Martin Charcot
  • Charles Davenport
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Frieda Fromm-Reichmann
  • Harry Harlow
  • Abraham Maslow
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • Wilder Penfield
  • B.F. Skinner
  • Roger Sperry
  • John Watson

Students assigned to the "Discoveries" group will read about the following landmarks in the history of psychology and medical science:

  • Freud's book, The Interpretation of Dreams, released
  • Binet pioneers intelligence testing
  • Watson launches behaviorist school of psychology
  • Eugenics movement reaches its height
  • 1923–1952: Piaget describes stages of cognitive development
  • Moniz develops lobotomy for mental illness
  • Electroshock therapy introduced
  • Drug for treating schizophrenia identified
  • 1972–1985: CT scan and MRI introduced
  • Role of endorphins discovered
  • Antidepressant Prozac introduced
  • Search for behavioral genes

When students have finished their reading assignments, hold a group discussion on the importance, significance, and most interesting aspects of these 20th-century mental health developments and human behavior insights. Begin the discussion by asking students to summarize what they have read about each person or discovery. Then, use the questions below to check comprehension and guide your review of the material. Human Behavior: Class Discussion teacher sheet is provided that contains brief summaries of important figures and discoveries as well as suggested answers to these questions.

Ask students:

  • Which of these scientific developments had dangerous applications?
  • What does the popularity of eugenics societies tell you about life and values in the 1920s? How do you feel about this chapter in American history?
  • Do you think lobotomies and electroshock therapy were effective ways of treating mental illness in the 1930s and 1940s? Why or why not? Why did they grow in popularity during this period?
  • Are you in support of research that attempts to link genes with behavior? Why or why not?
  • Which of the figures or discoveries do you think provided the greatest contributions or insights on mental health and human behavior?


Depending on your time availability, the following assignment can be done in class and/or as homework.

In a brief essay, have students summarize in their own words what they believe is the key difference between how human behavior was viewed in 1900 and how it is viewed now. The essay should contain specific examples from the material they have read and/or discussed in class.


"That's My Theory!" with special guest Sigmund Freud is an amusing and informative online "game show" where students have to guess which of the three disguised psychologists is the real Sigmund Freud (based on questions dealing with the personality, mind function, and the purpose of psychology).

On The Edge: Miracle Pill is a colorful and dramatic comic book depicting an "ace" reporter's interview with Dr. Henri Laborit, whose revolutionary discovery of the first tranquilizing drug in 1952 changed the way mental health is viewed and treated.

You Try It: Probe the Brain is a very insightful and engaging activity that allows students to map out and probe the brain, just as Wilder Penfield first did in the 1950s and 1960s. As part of the exercise, students may enjoy the fact that the animators "give you an electric probe and an exposed brain" and that "all you need to do is shock and observe." (Shockwave is required.)

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards

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