Editor’s Picks

Online Learners’ Mental Health: Does Anyone Care?

By Sherman Morrison
November 25, 2019

There is an ever-growing array of options to get a degree or specific training entirely online without ever setting foot on a physical campus of any kind. As this shift continues to occur in the digital world of the twenty-first century, some are beginning to wonder whose responsibility it is to look after online learners’ mental health.

Traditional Higher Education and Student Mental Health

On college and university campuses across the nation and world, more attention is being paid to the mental health of students than ever before, and for good reason. According to some of the latest research available, “…three out of 10 students have struggled with depression in the last two weeks, and over one in four have expressed issues with anxiety. Even more distressing is the one in 20 college students who had created a suicide plan in the past year.” Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the age group that includes traditional college students. It has also been well-documented that student mental health challenges lead to discontinuous enrollment, stop-out, and lower GPAs.

Those are alarming figures, to be sure. Many institutions of higher education have stepped up efforts to better address student mental health while others are lagging behind. The American Council on Education conducted a survey to which 410 college presidents responded. Fully 81% of the presidents say student mental health has become more of a priority now than it was three years ago. About 71% of them have responded by reallocating or finding additional funds to do something about it. A quarter of them are hearing about student mental health issues and concerns on a weekly basis. When it comes to who is charged with addressing student mental health, 92% of the presidents place that responsibility with their VP of student affairs or the dean of students. These presidents also wish they could hire more staff for their campus counseling centers.

Students themselves in colleges and universities everywhere have stepped up to raise awareness about their mental health issues and reduce the stigma associated with asking for help. One such group is called Active Minds, a campus-based student group started by Alson Malmon when she was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania following the suicide of her older brother. 16 years later, Active Minds has chapters on 700 campuses a reach as many as 600,000 students with a combination of campus awareness campaigns, events, advocacy, and outreach. On other campuses, students have formed various kinds of peer support groups to help each other address mental health issues.

But these are all campus-based activities – brick-and-mortar counseling centers, physical in-person meetings of groups and organizations. Where does this leave online learners’ mental health? Who is looking after the well-being of students who will never set foot on a physical campus during their learning journey? Given the growing number of online learners, this seems like it should be a top priority for any institution or company offering learning programs that take place entirely online. There are a couple examples worth noting.

How Post University is Addressing Online Learners’ Mental Health

Some of the reasons why online learners’ mental health is not being robustly addressed has to do with misperceptions, as outlined by Lisa Antel, director of the counseling center at Post University, in Connecticut. Part of why online programs are so appealing to educators is the belief that they can cost less because online students need fewer services. Mental health is often sidelined as a “discretionary” offering. This makes no sense to Antel, who notes that most of the 10,000 online learners at Post are working adults who have a much more complex array of responsibilities to families and employers than the average college-age student on a campus. People trying to balance work and family duties along with participation in an online learning program – many of which are purposefully intense and fast-paced – are arguably more vulnerable to a mental health tailspin when the fragile balance is thrown off by something. And they can’t just walk over to the campus counseling center if they’re nowhere near it. The mix of services related to online learners’ mental health Post is ramping up includes the following:

  • Raising awareness by providing online learners with information about the importance of their mental health.
  • HelpPro: A service to help online students find counseling options in their local area.
  • A more immediate way for students to get help in a mental health crisis.
  • Mental health screenings: Available to both campus and online learners, these provide suggested next steps should the results warrant them.
  • Instructor training: Online instructors receive training in what to watch out for with online learners’ mental health, which is different from what professors teaching students in physical classrooms observe as signals of possible mental health issues. Online instructors share anything they notice of concern with a campus threat assessment team.
  • Crisis Intervention: If something extreme like a suicide attempt is mentioned, Campus Safety would reach out to the student, and also alert local authorities to check in on them.

While the above strategies and services are a good start, Antel will be the first to admit that more can and should be done. Institutions of higher education with online learning programs would do well to catch up to Post if they haven’t developed specific programming for online learners’ mental health, and then work hard to go above and beyond such modest beginnings to identify and help online students experiencing mental health problems.

Lambda School Partners with Modern Health for Online Learners’ Mental Health

Lambda School is the online tech-career training program for which students pay nothing until they’ve landed a job paying at least $50k per year (see my previous article, Will Lambda School Disrupt Online Education?). Co-founder and CEO Austen Allred recently announced Lambda is partnering with Modern Health to provide new mental health benefits to students and staff. Here’s how he described what would be offered:

“Today Lambda School is announcing a new partnership with Modern Health to give our staff and students access to resources that help support personal well-being and mental health, including personalized assessment, evidence-based digital healthcare, and access to licensed coaches and therapists. This partnership will assist our students and staff with eight areas of wellness: Work Performance, Stress & Anxiety, Healthy Lifestyles, Financial Wellbeing, Belonging and Inclusion, Life Challenges, Mindfulness and Meditation, and Relationships.”

Students will access services through the Modern Health app and are eligible to take advantage of up to six virtual visits with a professional coach and up to six in-person sessions with a licensed therapist – all at no cost to them. The plan also includes unlimited texting with a coach, and access to a digital library with courses for building resiliency and tools for managing stress. Crisis prevention services will also be available when needed.

This is a substantial array of services being made available to students free of charge by a startup EdTech company looking to do right as it attempts to disrupt online learning. I can’t help but wonder how many coding bootcamps are willing to make this kind of commitment to their online learners’ mental health.

Oregon State University’s Ecampus Mental Health Services

There are more than 6,000 students who take classes exclusively online through Oregon State University’s Ecampus. The average age of these online learners is 31, most of them are working adults and parents returning to school many years after first starting, and nearly half are first-generation college students. That all adds up to a lot of pressure to succeed. Here’s how Oregon State is supporting online learners’ mental health:

  • Special Web Page: An Ecampus students web page on the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services website that outlines how to get help and support.
  • Ecampus Success Coach: While these success coaches are academically focused, they can help students sort out what’s contributing to their mental health challenges and refer them to resources and support.
  • CAPS Counseling: Students located within the state of Oregon can access limited distance counseling through CAPS.
  • Resilience Toolbox: A variety of online and self-help resources students can access and use at their own pace.

Similar to Post University, Oregon State University has taken some important first steps in addressing online learners’ mental health. CAPS associate director of clinical services Marcey Bamba helps ensure Ecampus students know what’s available, and hopes the university will continue to expand the services and resources available to online students.

There is no shortage of stories in the media about the student mental health crisis that has been growing in recent years, but very few of those headlines are about online learners. What’s needed now is more coverage of what the online learning community is doing in order to show what successful models look like for addressing online learners’ mental health.

Featured Image: Daria Nepriakhina, Unsplash.