Teaching Mental Health in the ESL Classroom

Mental health illustration concept. Psychology visual interpretation of mental health in the flat design
Image source: www.bigstockphoto.com

COVID-19 has taken its toll on people’s mental health.  

Recently, I decided to teach my students more about the topic. We were going into lockdown before the Christmas break and I thought it was relevant.  

I thought students could use more information and support in case they or a loved one were experiencing mental health issues. I hoped that by talking about these issues they could also come up with strategies to help them during the lockdown. 

The challenge was teaching students language about mental health at a low CLB 2 level. The first step was reviewing vocabulary. 

I usually create slides using MS Word for my Zoom class. I illustrated the words with descriptions, pictures, and sometimes videos. Students also used their personal translators. 

I chose key words like “mental health”, “mental illness”, and “stigma”. I researched the most straightforward definitions and paired them with images from reputable websites. 

That was only the start. We explored different feelings. For example, “I feel…” and then words like “depressed”, “anxious”, or “angry”. I illustrated with pictures. 

We discussed scenarios where a person might have these feelings. For example, we would complete sentences like, “I don’t know when coronavirus will end. I feel worried”. There was no right answer. One student could have answered “stressed” and another “depressed”. The point was to explore these feelings and words. We reviewed vocabulary using word matching. 

I show videos regularly as part of my teaching. YouTube is my go-to source. News reports and videos from mental health organizations like CAMH are good, reputable sources. Videos with a first-person perspective are especially useful. 

I shared with the class a news story featuring a short interview of a woman who talked about her experience dealing with anxiety and depression when coronavirus hit. The story was short enough for me to transcribe and simplify for the students. So, we read it together and reviewed some of the vocabulary. 

Then, we created a quick dialogue of a conversation this woman may have with a friend. The dialogue took about five turns, including a greeting and the friend asking how the woman was feeling. This was short enough for the students to copy and then practice in breakout rooms. 

Later, I showed them how to access COVID-19 mental health resources on the City of Toronto website. We talked about two numbers that you could call to get help: 911 in an emergency and 211 to access mental health services. We practiced a script of what to say when calling mental health services like, “Hello. I feel depressed. I’m calling to get help.” 

Finally, we explored other ways to take care of their mental health and well-being. The City of Toronto website has many digital information sheets showing what people could do during COVID-19, for example, staying connected while on lockdown or staying physically active. We brainstormed some ways that we keep healthy. 

I taught this at the very end of the year over the course of a week. Although there was not an official assessment, we practiced our reading and speaking skills. We learned a lot of new vocabulary and I shared with students some great resources. Perhaps, they felt more supported going into the Christmas season and lockdown. 

I remain mindful of my students’ well-being, including their mental health. I want them to feel like they are a part of a community. COVID-19 can be stressful and isolating. 

Now more than ever, it is important to take the time to make sure everyone is doing well. Learning English online can be stressful and sedentary. Students are also balancing learning with family and other responsibilities.  

In my Zoom class, we do short mindfulness and stretching exercises to help students relax and feel more centered. Stretching is great for stress relief and works hand in hand with mindfulness to calm the mind and provide perspective during anxious times. 

I would recommend all teachers promote good physical and mental well-being in their classrooms. 

How do you teach ESL students about mental health? How do you promote good physical and mental wellbeing in your classroom?  


My name is Svjetlana Vrbanic—Lana—and I am a newly certified adult ESL teacher. I completed a degree in English and worked as a teacher and newspaper reporter/editor. Work has allowed me to travel from Labrador to Alberta and enjoy many great experiences. I was born in the former-Yugoslavia, but lived in Toronto most of my life. I can speak Serbo-Croatian, but primarily use English and love sharing what I know with students from all over the world. I like to have a good time and enjoy pursuing interests like cooking, running, volunteering, learning about health and psychology, and spending time with my niece, two rambunctious Jack Russell terriers, and a shy, but loveable cat. I am excited to blog about my experiences which will hopefully inform and entertain, as well as help support a vibrant teaching community. Wishing my colleagues many happy adventures in teaching.


5 thoughts on “Teaching Mental Health in the ESL Classroom”

  1. The topic of Covid-19, while best avoided exactly because it causes so much stress and people have very differing feelings and opinions on the subject is a tricky one, but it sounds as though you found a good approach – focusing on mental wellness. I also like your idea about promoting stretching and relaxation in the classroom. Thanks!

    1. I’m glad you liked the article, Sarah. Although it can be a sensitive topic, we should not shy away from teaching mental health in the ESL classroom. Avoiding it may further stigma and we want to make our students feel supported. At least have the vocabulary to deal with the topic. I am glad I did it and the students seemed to enjoy it.

  2. Thank you for sharing your insight with us. This is an important topic to explore in ESL the classroom.

    1. Thank you, Gonul. I’m glad you like the article. I too think that it’s an important topic.

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