Mental Health 3: Mental Health through Literature

Mental Health 3: Mental Health through Literature Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To examine the impact and portrayal of mental illness in literature and to encourage students to further develop their ideas about mental health through the arts.


This is the third lesson of a three-part series 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 learn 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.9-10.6 Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, defining the question the author seeks to address.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
    • By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
    • By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
  • 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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Before students begin to consider "Mental Health through Literature," perform a general open review with them about what they have learned so far in the previous lessons.

In the first lesson, Mental Health 1: Human Behavior, students had an in-depth discussion of the points and applications of the benchmarks regarding how people cope with emotions differently and how societies and eras often vary in how they look at and treat mental health conditions. In the lesson based on the PBS Then and Now: Human Behavior website, students should have walked away with a detailed understanding of the key figures (Freud, Watson, Laborit, Maslow) and discoveries (brain function, psychosurgery, drug remedies) that have helped to transform how people and societies have looked at mental health and human behavior since 1900. (During this review, you may choose to have students take out their timelines and answer more specific questions on this previous material.)

In the second lesson, Mental Health 2: Bedlam, students examined mental health perceptions and abnormal human behavior on a more personal level through the asylum experience and a vicarious "visit" to Bedlam during the 18th century. From their discussion of the readings, students were able to see the kinds of problems, issues, and conditions—among them, being found "entertaining"—the mentally impaired suffered in England (and perhaps in other Western countries) during this period. From the two personal accounts, it was clearly evident that two groups of "normal" visitors could have entirely different reactions to the mad scenes of Bedlam, a fact that supports the first benchmark. And, from their Assessment discussion of the material, students should have come to see how radically different the views about and treatment of the mentally ill have become, comparing England's Bedlam in the 18th century to the kinds of institutional standards generally in practice in America today. This growth can be attributed to the critical figures and discoveries of the 20th century—and society's willingness to implement these kinds of breakthroughs.

Optional Question:
You may choose to end the review with a question that encompasses the critical discoveries cited in the first lesson with the early asylum experience in the second.

Ask students:

  • If Bedlam were open today, what do you think it would be like? What specific discoveries or developments in mental health would contribute to these kinds of changes?

Students should now be sufficiently prepared to begin the lesson, which includes a look at the impact and portrayal of mental illness in the arts.


Using the Mental Health through Literature student esheet, have students work their way through the resource and activities below. Refer students to the Mental Health through Literature student sheet. Students will use this throughout the lesson.

Explain to students that in Shakespeare's time, physical and mental illness were said to be inseparable and mentally ill people were ridiculed. As we saw in the previous lesson, people would actually visit asylums, like Bedlam, for entertainment!

Then direct students to use their esheets to go to and read Renaissance Views of Madness: King Lear. Before students begin to read this insightful paper online, it might be important to ask whether they are familiar with Shakespeare's famous tragedy, King Lear. Elicit responses that might hopefully summarize the story. If a general synopsis cannot be pieced together, read the short storyline found on the Mental Health through Literature student esheet aloud to the class.

Once students are oriented, explain to the class what the resource is about: basically, it is an essay that analyzes the madness of King Lear, one of literature's earliest and most captivating portraits of mental illness. The resource's author attempts to gauge the level of King Lear's madness while arguing from the social theories and beliefs, literary influences, or bases of knowledge Shakespeare drew from to portray this madness.

Due to the in-depth analysis and general complexity of the essay itself, go over the questions on the Mental Health through Literature student sheet with the class prior to their reading. Read over the questions in order to give students a head start on what they will need to know about the character of King Lear—from the standpoint of mental illness and human behavior. Suggested answers to the questions can be found on the Mental Health through Literature teacher sheet. When students are finished, you may choose to have a broader discussion of the reading. Allow 20 minutes for this activity.

Reading Activity: Madness in Literature
As conveyed in the essay on King Lear, the portrayal of mental health in the arts has always had a profound impact on how people and societies think, feel, and relate to issues and people dealing with mental illness. This is why it is important to encourage students to begin the lifelong process of thinking more openly, actively, and critically about their own views on mental health and human behavior—particularly when reading books, watching movies, or dealing directly with issues in their own lives.

Below are suggested novels that students can read to broaden what they've learned and to fulfill this assignment. It is recommended that you check with English teachers at your school to decide which novels might be most appropriate for your students. You may choose to have the whole class read the same book—which is ideal for in-depth discussions and analysis of characters and human behavior—or different books to provide students with a broader picture of the ideas in the benchmarks.

Here are some suggested novels or plays:

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil
Albert Camus, The Stranger
Albert Camus, The Trial
Albert Camus, The Fall
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Setzuan
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
John Knowles, A Separate Peace
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
Shakespeare, Othello
Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Shakespeare, King Lear
Edgar Allen Poe, The Telltale Heart
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Joyce Carol Oates, them
Eugene O’Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome
George Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc
Jean Cocteau, The Holy Terrors
Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John


Depending on your time availability, the following assessment can be done in class and/or as a homework assignment in the form of an essay.

Discuss the following:

  • What can we learn from literature about how mental health is viewed in a particular time and place?
  • In what ways can the arts further our understanding of madness in different periods?


Encourage students to supplement their learning by taking a look at mental illness and madness as depicted in films. Here are a few noteworthy examples:

  • The Madness of King George
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • The Snake Pit
  • Diary of a Mad Housewife
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Girl, Interrupted
  • Frances
  • Ordinary People
  • A Woman Under the Influence
  • Harvey
  • Fitzcorrado
  • The Mosquito Coast
  • Rainman
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • I Am Sam

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks State Standards

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