Mental Health Group Education: Ideas for How to Teach Mentally Ill Patients

Updated on May 7, 2017
Blake Flannery profile image

Blake has worked in the mental health field since 2002 educating and inspiring hope on the journey toward recovery.

Educating Patients With Mental Illness

If you are lucky enough to experience leading a group on a psychiatric intensive care unit, you are in for a treat. You will most likely be challenged, entertained, delighted, and educated yourself—all at the same time. The patients on a psych unit are going through crisis, and they have mental illnesses that make education challenging. The education, however, is all that much more important to them. Psychiatric patients are in the hospital because they need stabilization from their crisis, and if you have the opportunity to educate them you at least one key to unlock a higher quality of life.

Some frequent issues challenge the learning environment of the inpatient psychiatric educational group. These challenges have the potential to derail any possibility of patient learning. Challenges are bound to come up in your group, because the patients have mental illness issues. Keep this in mind. And note that some resistance from students is good—because is indicates engagement.

Educational Challenges To Be Considered

  • Wide variation in developmental levels
  • Overactive and under-active participation
  • Short attention span
  • Total disrespect for the leader

Class in Bed Making: From 1898 "vacation school"
Class in Bed Making: From 1898 "vacation school"

What Makes a Great Educational Group?

The success of the group should be measured by learning. More specifically, whether the patients learned what you designed for them to learn. You can "wing it" and have a great group, but you can also have an awful group. When leaders are winging it you get a wide variation across different leaders. Of course, some topics are going to naturally be better for some leaders, but structure in the planning process can minimize the factor of chance.

How to Plan an Educational Group

Ask yourself what it is that you would like your patients to learn from your group. These can be deep understandings to simpler ideas and concepts. You are the designer of the learning, and the best way to design anything whether it be a car or a lesson plan is by starting with the goal in mind. Do you want your students to learn that when they go off medications and pass up sleep they end up in crisis and earn a trip to the hospital? Start there for yourself, but work backwards to plan the learning activities of the group. This idea comes from a popular education book Understanding By Design (or UBD). It is a backwards planning concept. This is much better than simply finding resources and making them fit. Backwards planning starts with understandings in mind which choose which resources will fit.

  • Tip: Make a concept map with your large understanding in the middle of the page. Spider web to smaller ideas and concepts. Use this as your crude lesson plan.

Depending on where you are working, you will probably have certain topics you are to teach clients, ranging from life skills to medication education. You will be responsible for teaching clients on these topics. Think about what order you should present each concept. The education field uses something called "scaffolding" in order to allow students to understand concepts by building on what they know. Start with where your patients are. Then give them the next step of education. If your patients need a group on personal hygiene and wellness more than communication skills, then start there. Even better yet let your hygiene group lead into communication skills noting the fact that hygiene communicates something to others as well as other non-verbal communication. Now you are scaffolding and prioritizing for the needs of your students.

  • Tip: Stay Flexible and Scaffold Learning Experiences. Ensure that your lesson is appropriate to the clients you are serving. Survey your students to learn more about them. Just asking can really help.

Now that you have an idea of the "what" and "when" you will teach things, lets examine the "how." Keep in mind that you may have some clients who have more education than you while others in the group are developmentally disabled. "Dumbing Down" is not acceptable as you will quickly notice the higher functioning people losing interest. "Talking over their heads" is not a good idea either as you will find the same thing in the lower functioning patients. The way educators deal with this dilemma is by using differentiation. Differentiation is a term for strategies that allow all students on varying levels to learn from a single lesson. Veteran educators incorporate these strategies without thinking about it. Your job is to choose appropriate strategies at appropriate times.

Group work differentiates for learning levels
Group work differentiates for learning levels

Differentiation Strategies to Help All Learners

  • Choice. This sounds simple, but it is easily overlooked and one of the easiest to incorporate. You can give your students choice about what they learn, thus making them feel included in their own learning. This is like including them in their treatment plan. Cut down on engagement issues right away with this strategy. I suggest asking for feedback individually or in written form to gain good feedback without starting a riot.
  • Group Work. This allows those at higher levels of functioning to help those at lower functioning levels. Be careful when designing your group work. Larger groups are more difficult to control. Make sure you have a clear explanation of expectations of each group member; assign roles. It is a good idea to choose who you want to work with who. This keeps people from choosing friends and socializing too much, and making others feel left out.
  • Utilize Multiple Learning Styles. There are different types of intelligence types and different learning styles. Many people say they are visual learners. Survey your clients to find out what works best. I have found most learn the best from visual media and by doing. Professional educators use graphic organizers to make difficult information easier to understand. This cuts down on engagement problems. Use variety to keep your lessons interesting. Ideas include having patients listen to a song, write their own reaction, and then watch the video that the artists made. Then have the patients write their own song either collectively, in groups, or individually. And this could be just the intro to your topic.

Don't forget to incorporate multiple learning styles into your lessons
Don't forget to incorporate multiple learning styles into your lessons

Suggestions for Dealing with Educational Challenges

We have investigated tools to ensure learning in our mental health groups. Depending on what challenges you are currently having or foresee in the future, you can use tactics to address each. Another unmentioned thing to think about is making your groups relevant to your clients. Aim material at their demographics. Keep in mind their age, interests, socioeconomic status, etc. Let's revisit the common challenges and list possible remedies.

Wide variation in developmental levels

  • Differentiation (including: group work, using multiple learning styles, student choice)
  • Scaffolding (building on what patients already know/learned)

Overactive and under-active participation

  • Set ground rules and expectations (examples: Respect others, No putting down others, Listen to others, No sharing of personal stories for this group)
  • Differentiation (including: group work, using multiple learning styles, student choice)
  • Scaffolding (building on what patients already know/learned)

Short attention span

  • Differentiation (including: group work, using multiple learning styles, student choice)
  • Scaffolding (building on what patients already know/learned)
  • Ask yourself what would allow you to pay attention through the group.

Total disrespect for the leader

  • Differentiation (including: group work, using multiple learning styles, student choice)
  • Set ground rules and expectations (examples: Respect others, No putting down others, Listen to others, No sharing of personal stories for this group)
  • Examine your own attitude
  • Avoid offensive statements

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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    • profile image


      21 months ago

      Can you suggest any wellness plan that you have incorporated in the past.

    • Blake Flannery profile imageAUTHOR

      Blake Flannery 

      21 months ago from United States


      Med compliance is a difficult topic because it may involve behavior changes. Here's a few ideas off the top of my head:

      -Share the message of hope of recovery and that treatment works.

      -Discuss examples of how recovery role-models have successfully reached their goals using medicines.

      -Increase understanding of risks of going off medicine without consulting a psychiatrist first.

      -Identify ways to overcome barriers to getting prescribed medicines including cost and transportation.

      -Describe options of what to do when experiencing side effects.

      -List some common side effects that may diminish over time.

      -Identify ways to communicate concerns about medicines with the psychiatrist.

      -Make a safety plan for what to do if medicines are not working as well as they used to work.

      -Describe how medicine helps individuals reach their goals and stay aligned with their values.

    • profile image


      21 months ago

      Thank you so much for this very educational piece. I and a group of other students have been tasked with teaching medication compliance to a psychiatric group residing in an out patient unit. Would you be able to recommend some objectives?

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This was very useful! I am a nursing student and am on my mental health rotation. I have to teach a class with a partner this week to the patients, and I was searching to find ideas for a topic to teach. Thanks for the pointers!

    • profile image

      maame yaa 

      6 years ago

      am doing a project about the education system of the mentallly handicapped,this article is a helpful guide.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I am preparing to lead a mental health community group for the first time as a music therapist and this article was very helpful. The layout and reiteration of the important topics/points helped to get my session plan focused. Thank you!

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 

      8 years ago from Space Coast

      I worked at Devereux for 10 years. This came up on one of my hubs. Great Job!

    • gavelect profile image


      8 years ago from Glasgow

      I love your positive attitude. One of the key elements in helping anyone with mental health issues.

    • fruitunderatree profile image


      9 years ago from Cambridge, UK

      Intersting stuff. I do a lot of this kind of work in a medium secure psychiatric mospital where i work as well is stuff based on my reflections as a user of mental health services (or lack of them). Love the scaffolding idea.

    • opismedia profile image


      10 years ago

      A very educational article, i think group work to be the most efficient approach, but ofc that is my opinion and i know it differs from situation to situation.

    • profile image

      Patsy Cheyney 

      10 years ago

      I have been invited as a guest speaker a couple of times to appear on panels on community resources at the local state hospital, San Antonio State Hospital. The groups have been amazingly orderly, generally interested, and reasonably participatory. The audience rates the speakers on effectiveness just as they would at any seminar. Acute patient care--not extended commitments or intensive care. An interesting experience. The psychologist who heads the program does a great job. Thought this article was much needed--very few resources on educating persons with a mental illness in any situation

    • shoppingcartsplus profile image


      10 years ago from United States of America

      This is very informative and I applaud you for making this. I would like to also add that before a person gets to interact with mentally ill patients, he must not forget to deal with his own issues first. Self-awareness is a crucial factor in maintaining a healthy educator to client relationship.

    • sasanqua profile image


      10 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Great hub, especially the opening paragraph! There is such a stigma attached to people who have a mental illness, when really we are just as special as everyone else, and are capable of having positive effects on other people's lives. Thanks for making me smile.

    • Freudulant profile image


      11 years ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting piece. It obviously helps to have the luxury of organizing groups based on shared core interests or needs. In a psych unit you have indeed a very mixed bag.

    • Blake Flannery profile imageAUTHOR

      Blake Flannery 

      11 years ago from United States


      Sorry that you had to go to another bathroom. One thing I have to remind patients is that everyone on the unit is there for different reasons, sometimes apparent other times unapparent. A frequent problem is people putting things into the toilet, such as entire rolls of toilet paper. Or priorities of safety may have caused your inconvenience.

      As for the staff, don't give yourself much grief over anything you did. I would not feel useful if every patient was perfect and I was not challenged. That's what we're there for. I'm glad you are doing better.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      11 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Oh dear. I have the sinking feeling that I gave the psychiatric unit a difficult time my last visit. I don't remember much, but I've been able to piece together that my roommate was not allowed to shower, so our bathroom was kept locked and I had to use a bathroom down the hall. I can imagine I was pretty p o'd at that. Then I do have a difficult time "playing along" -- which is what you ideally want patients to do. I apologize to any mental health workers who ever had to deal with me. . . . interesting hub.


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