Mental Health Education from an Unlikely Source


Over lunch a few months ago my friend was telling me about her little sister, who is in eighth grade.  She explained how she is watching her sister grow up.  She spends more time on her appearance- she just learned how to use mascara and got eye shadow for Christmas.  She has a crush on the lead singer of a boy band.  But along with make up and boy bands, my friend mentioned how she’s starting to see her sister try to deal with new and more complex emotions.

That got me thinking about my experiences growing up and my time in grade school.  I learned a lot of things in 12 years of school- algebra and chemistry.  In health class we learned the risks that come along with unprotected sex or various illegal drugs.  But only briefly did we talk about emotions and mental health.  Because my high school is located in a small town we didn’t even offer an introduction to psychology class and we were a community known to cover up our problems to maintain a picture perfect image.  While my friend’s sister goes to a larger high school with more resources, that got me thinking about how neglected mental health is in our education systems.  But ironically after the conversation with my friend, I remembered education about mental health and emotions doesn’t necessarily have to be taught in a classroom and can take the unlikely form of an animated movie.

I watched Disney Pixar’s movie Inside out on a plane ride back from Ireland.  It seemed like a creative concept and I’ve always been a sucker for animated movies.  However, halfway through the flight I felt the need to push back tears so the stranger next to me wouldn’t think I was crazy for crying at a children’s movie.  To my surprise the movie had a lot of heavy messages hidden underneath its cheery animation.  The story follows a twelve-year-old girl named Riley as she moves to a new town and focuses on the perspectives of the emotions in her head- joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness.  Like most kids, joy is the dominant emotion in Riley’s head, responsible for happy memories with family and friends.  However, when moving to a new town, the other emotions start to take over.  Joy works hard in an effort to keep Riley happy and particularly suppress sadness.  But as the movie goes on you learn sadness is a necessary part of life and that it’s healthy to express that emotion.

This movie, although targeted for kids, helps teens and adults just as much as children.  It presents emotions in an easy to process, unthreatening way, something that may be difficult in a classroom setting.  Not only does this movie show that sadness is a normal part of life, but it is also great at depicting how the other emotions work together and that the brain is a very complex place.  While I found myself surprised at how realistic the movie was at depicting the struggles of growing up, the psychology major in me was thrilled that a movie like this was a success.  By taking the time to teach kids about their emotions in a way that they’ll understand and enjoy- it will help them better process these emotions and build a foundation for acceptance of mental health issues, such as depression.  Opening up discussion about emotions to our children is a wonderful and crucial first step to demolishing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

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