Lottie Galpin

Representing mental health in ELT materials

A photo of scrabble tiles which spell out the words: mental health. Some leaves are visible in the top right of the image.

This post was first published on LinkedIn in May 2021.

Earlier this week, I posted these questions on a couple of social media sites:

How can we bring the topic of mental health into our ELT materials and our classrooms? And how do we do this in a way that doesn’t trigger students?

Half an hour of scribbling and getting lost down research rabbit holes led me to realise something important: Answering both questions in one article is impossible. So, today, I’m just going to share a few thoughts on representing mental health in ELT materials.

1 Research, consult and double-check

This is true for most areas of inclusion, but in order to appropriately represent something, it’s vital to do thorough research. Wherever possible, check your materials with a relevant charity or organisation, or people with lived experience to ensure you’re not misrepresenting anything or perpetuating any harmful stereotypes.

2 Choose your words carefully

Think about the words you use in your materials. Many words and phrases that are used in everyday speech misrepresent mental illness and mental health conditions or add to stigma around them. The phrase I’m crazy about … is offensive to some, but frequently taught. Students need to know the phrase, but should we be encouraging them to actively use it? Click here to learn more.

Wooden scrabble tiles which spell out: choose your words

3 Push the boundaries

As the saying goes ‘Mental health is health’ and it should be included in course book units on health. Admittedly, some books are already doing this, but the go-to representation is often limited to stress or anxiety.  Why not include some of the many other mental health conditions and illnesses which exist? 

A barrier to this, and a personal bugbear, is the fact that much mental health vocab is graded CEFR level B2 or above. Personally, I see no reason why an A2 student couldn’t handle learning a few higher-level words. 

4 Photos

A quick note here on photos. Think carefully when you’re choosing photos to represent mental health conditions or illnesses. The choices on photobanks seem to largely be limited to people crying in dark rooms or exploding with stress. I’ve done both of these things but they don’t represent my everyday existence. I find myself questioning whether the moody-explosion photos do more to perpetuate myths about mental health than to dispel them.

5 Use the whole book

Representations of mental health don’t only belong in health units. They should be included across a book and a course, weaved into a range of topics both overtly and incidentally. 

Now, in some respects, ELT materials do actually do this. Think about classics like: Is social media bad for you? However, I do think we need to push the envelope a bit. Many typical course book topics could cover mental health. A few examples of how we could do this are: pets and mental health, environment anxiety, films or books about mental health, and inventions for mental health.

Clearly, for some of these examples, the topic of mental health is front and centre and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are other options which allow classwork to focus on the topic of the unit or on mental health. A review of a film or book about mental health could be a springboard for work on writing reviews, or it could lead to a discussion on mental health. A text about inventions for mental health could be included alongside other inventions. Follow-up activities could discuss mental health or inventions.

Representation can be brought into any section of a book. Functional English and listening activities, for example, are great places to mention mental health without making it the focus: ‘I’d prefer not to drive long distances. Driving makes me really anxious.’ The incidental comment could then be explored in more depth with teachers’ book support and activities.

6 Mental health skills

Think about dealing with mental health as a skill to be taught. Why not teach students how to recognise depression in others, or how to deal with someone having a panic attack? Of course, this would need to be handled extremely carefully –we don’t want to do more harm than good – and I’d recommend having any materials checked with a relevant charity or organisation.  If you’re a teacher, it’s probably worth checking with your manager, too.

7 Being positive

In my experience, ELT books can have a tendency to suggest that anything is achievable with hard work, positivity and grit. Now, learning skills to manage mental health is important. However, it’s worth noting that for some people ‘thinking positive’ and ‘feeling motivated’ may be harder work than it is for others. An additional sentence in a text that acknowledges this could make all the difference. 

Wooden scrabble tiles which spell out: Yes you can

8 People are already doing this

I posted the questions at the top of the page in the Reflecting Reality Facebook group and discovered that people have long been finding creative and engaging ways to bring the topic of mental health into their materials and classrooms. Some of the brilliant ideas they came up with were using poetry and TED talks as a springboard for discussion and activities. (Thank you Aleksandra Popovski and Stephanie Valerio for allowing me to share those.) If you’re a freelance ELT publishing professional, or an ELT teacher, why not join the group to find out what other ideas were shared?

If you’re still reading, I’d love to know what you think of these ideas. Do you already do some of these things in your materials? What other ways can we bring the topic of mental health to ELT materials?

‘Mental health’ scrabble tiles: Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash
‘Choose your words’ and ‘Yes, you can’ scrabble tiles Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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