Health Class: Teaching Mental Health to Children

“So, you’re basically a doctor, right?” facetiously asked my husband Jared, looking up from a lesson plan.

“Only 1/8 of a doctor,” I responded, preparing my lunch for the next day. He laughed.

“So, 1/8 of a doctor: what should I teach these 5th graders about their health? What should I make sure they know?”  

"I don’t know," I said. "I'm not a doctor… yet."

At the time of our conversation I'd completed one grueling semester of medical school and was one quarter into my second semester. Being that the second semester included a lot of information about the cardiovascular system, I had a good place to start. 


“Heart disease is the number-one killer of Americans, so tell them not to eat things that'll clog-up your arteries, like fast-food. Eat your veggies! Exercise so I, and my fellow future doctors, don’t have to prescribe you a laundry list of medication because you didn’t take care of your heart!"

Jared once again looked up at me, raising his eyebrows. Apparently a lecture from a 1/8 doctor wasn't the lesson he was looking for. 

“But in all seriousness,” I amend, “teach them that their health is important. Teach them about healthy food choices, the benefits of exercise, and that the body isn’t invincible, and they need to take care of it. As my grandma always said, ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation.’ Teach them to have self-control, especially in food choices. Just help them be aware of consequences if they consistently choose a cheeseburger and fries over -- I don’t know -- chicken with quinoa and rice along with some broccoli.”

We take turns pitching ideas that will be fun and interactive for the kids. Jared is personally excited to teach them about the immune system. He’s going to compare the immune response to an intergalactic battle. To be fair, that comparison is fairly accurate.

After about 30 minutes of discussion, we've already laid out a plan for a decent chunk of the term. We review his list: digestive system, exercise, water, food choices, immune system, hygiene, sleep hygiene, and the dreaded but necessary puberty video. What else do you need to know about health at a 5th grade level? 

Then it hit me.


“Teach them about their emotions," I exclaimed. "What they’re feeling!? Talk about where it’s coming from, and show them how to communicate that. They’re about to be hit with a ton of hormones that are going to amplify everything. They need to know how to cope and communicate accurately what they are feeling!”  

"I can show them Inside Out to introduce the concepts!” he said excitedly, referencing one of our favorite Disney-Pixar films. “What else?”

I was on a roll now. 

“Mental health is incredibly important; They need to know that they’re going to constantly have ups and downs. They’re going to feel anger, sadness, frustration, joy, and all kinds of other emotions. All these emotions are part of being human. They need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and bottling them up only leads to an explosion. Knowing how to articulate what they’re feeling is a good life skill to have and it’ll help them cope. Shoot, this topic is so important. My medical school is constantly emphasizing our personal mental health, burnout, and that it’s okay to not be okay.”

They’re going to feel anger, sadness, frustration, joy, and all kinds of other emotions. All these emotions are part of being human.

“Not only that,” Jared adds with enthusiasm, “but also recognizing that others are feeling and coping with different emotions too. I could try to teach them to walk in each other’s shoes and maybe even how they could help a friend by listening, asking if they’re okay, or…”

We continued discussing mental health and ways he could teach his class about its importance. Closing his lesson plan, Jared smiled, excited for the opportunity  to help his students succeed not only in academics, but in life. As I looked down at his folded plans. the thought of mental health education continued to bounce around my mind. 

It’d been a while since I was in middle school health class, and while I definitely remember our puberty video, I didn’t really remember talking about emotions. 

How much different would my middle school and high school experiences have been if we were taught ways to cope with and talk about all the emotions we felt? Would I or anyone else have been bullied less? Would that one girl have felt less of a need to self-mutilate? Would another friend not have committed suicide in his college years? Would there have been less verbal abuse and physical violence? Would there be less substance abuse?

In the midst of training to be osteopathic physician, I understand the important link between emotional and physical health, and everyday I focus on ways to put this into practice as a physician. 

Through my medical education, I am training to become more attentive to the emotional health needs of my patients, using the resources available to me to help them navigate their emotions as they encounter new limitations due to health complications, experience the death of a loved one, or even just cope with the pressure of life in general. 

If I'd started to hone those skills earlier in life? If we all began working on them in 5th grade?  Imagine the things we could accomplish...

Anne Keeling (Square).jpg

Anne Keeling

Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st year (OMS I)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Anne Keeling