On being aware of mental health issues in ESL class

Mental Health Awareness for Teachers

Mental Health Awareness for Teachers


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

It’s hard to deny that nowadays we are living in turbulent times. Beside the fast-paced lifestyle full of everyday worries, we also have to deal with plenty of negative news which tackles wars, conflicts, natural disasters, unstable political situations, etc. 

In this article, we will look at the importance of mental health awareness in EFL from different perspectives and identify possible ways for a teacher to address mental health issues in class.

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ESL class: escapism vs facing the reality

It comes to no surprise that many learners and teachers consider EFL lessons as a form of escapism. 

As a rule, negative topics tend to be shunned, English textbooks are full of bright pictures of smiley people. The majority of lesson materials hardly cover anything potentially upsetting.

On the one hand, avoiding uncomfortable discussions is justified.

Learners may be tired of hearing about it on a daily basis. Moreover, controversial questions could cause unfriendly debates, which may lead to unwanted tension in the classroom. We may think what bothers our learners outside the classroom is none of our business. Our role is to teach and guide, not to provide therapy sessions.

On the other hand, is it the right decision to shelter our learners from any real-world issues? Will it actually have a positive effect on their mental health?

According to the WHO, the level of mental health conditions is rising worldwide, and ‘mental health conditions can have a substantial effect on all areas of life, such as school or work performance, relationships with family and friends and ability to participate in the community’

So, what is a right way to address mental health issues in the class?

What do you need to know about Maslow's Pyramid?

Be aware of risk factors

First of all, it would be useful to identify and keep in mind risk factors for mental health conditions.

These could be individual risk factors, e.g. poor physical health, financial insecurity, bereavement, job loss, alcohol and substance misuse; family risk factors, such as changes in family structure, alcoholic and/or drug-addicted parents, etc.; community risk factors, e.g. stigma associated with help-seeking. 

You can read more about risk factors by following this link.

Mind even the slightest behaviour changes

Then, let’s think about how learners’ mental states can affect the learning process.

If their life is relatively stress-free, it would be logical to assume that nothing will hinder their comprehension of the material, and their concentration level will be high.

However, when they are dealing with personal issues, their mind is likely to be elsewhere, while present perfect or articles would be the last thing to concern them.

So, here is the first red flag we as educators are able to notice: unusual behaviour in class. For example, a student who always actively participates in lessons and is eager to learn suddenly becomes quiet and seems distracted. 

Naturally, we could brush it off. We all face minor nuisances in life every now and then.

It is when such behaviour is repeated or even worsens that we should start seriously taking it into consideration. 

How to avoid burnout?

You cannot always be prepared, so be supportive

What can we do in such situations? I don’t think methodology books or courses prepare us for this. For instance, once I wanted to have a talk with my adult student to find out why she had missed a few classes. All of a sudden she burst into tears as it turned out she was dealing with personal issues. 

It caught me off guard at first, but we ended up having a 30-minute conversation. My student seemed relieved, but we also came up with solutions regarding her attendance.

We are not expected to treat depression or provide professional psychological aid – we are not therapists, after all. Yet, we can ensure our learners feel supported enough.

Consider the age group and notice warning signs

It’s also important to consider the age groups you are working with in order to establish the best solutions.

If you are teaching young learners, for example, and have noticed warning signs, such as poor concentration, distraction, and dominating negative thoughts, which are not typical, you can approach the learner first and try to cautiously find out the reason for behaviour changes.

Obviously, it would be more comfortable to discuss it one-to-one.

If it doesn’t help, it is recommended to bring it out with the learner’s parents or legal guardians. The further steps should be defined in cooperation with them.

How can you work in a mixed-ability class?

Approach the student directly

When teaching adults, we are able to approach them directly.

In my case, my student and I found a compromise together. Sometimes, it is a simple conversation that makes a difference. 

However, there are more severe issues which we are not competent enough to address. 

So, here is what we are capable of:

  • at the very beginning and throughout the course, inform the learners that in case they feel unsafe or face personal issues, they can always reach out to you so that you could consider possible solutions together;
  • carefully incorporate mental health discussions into lesson plans. Not only would it establish a safe environment in the classroom, but it can also equip learners with useful target language. Remind the learners that they don’t have to share personal issues, but it’s good to be generally aware of current world affairs and basic mental health recommendations;
  • if the student does reach out to you and tells you about factors that may affect their attendance or learning progress, discuss with them what could be done to make it more comfortable;
  • do some research and find free psychological helplines or platforms in your or your learners’ country in case they are struggling with issues that require specialist’s guidance. For instance, organisations that provide free psychological support in Ukraine are listed here.

In conclusion…

Fostering mental health awareness in the ESL classroom is essential in today’s challenging times.

While it is justifiable to avoid uncomfortable discussions, acknowledging the rising global prevalence of mental health conditions emphasises the need for educators to be attuned to the well-being of their learners.

By acknowledging the limitations of addressing severe mental health issues, teachers can empower learners with resources and guidance, promoting a compassionate and supportive learning environment. 

In doing so, educators play a crucial role in not only teaching language skills but also nurturing the holistic development of their students.

Is it true that the change in the usual attitude may mean nothing?

Article authors & editors
  • Olha Lavrentieva

    Olha Lavrentieva


    CELTA certified teacher of General English, Teenagers



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