Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health While Getting Your Online Education

Online education is an indisputably valuable part of the academic landscape, but online students do face unique academic, social, and mental health challenges. Many of these challenges have been magnified by the pandemic. There is a critical need to understand these challenges, and to provide effective support strategies for helping students manage the mental health challenges experienced both during and as a consequence of the online educational experience.

Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health While Getting Your Online Education

If you or somebody you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, or is in crisis, reach out immediately to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255/Nacional de Prevencion del Suicidio (1-888-628-9454), or Chat Online with a caring professional.

For a deeper discussion on the connection between the pandemic and online learning, check out Online Education and COVID-19—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Otherwise, read on to learn more about the mental health challenges that come with online education and find out what strategies can be employed to manage the mental health needs of online students…

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Online Education and the Pandemic

At the college and graduate level, online learning was already a popular educational path even prior to the pandemic, with more than 7 million students taking at least one post-secondary online course in 2019 alone. Online learning is also deeply ingrained in the educational strategy for many K-12 charter schools.

Then in March of 2020, the first major wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States. Widespread school closures followed, and online education rapidly emerged as the only option for students at every level, from the youngest preschoolers to the most advanced graduate students. Suddenly, the demands placed upon our online education infrastructure had grown exponentially.

But even as online education emerged as a singular answer to the immediate problems presented by the pandemic, educators and students faced new difficulties. Far too many schools and educators lacked the training, background, or resources to make the transition seamlessly. And in this shaky period of transition, students and educators alike have faced numerous practical and academic obstacles. Frequently overlooked among them are the mental health challenges unique to online learning.

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The Connection Between Online Learning and Mental Health Challenges

Online learning continues to play a critical role in helping us navigate the pandemic. Without our web-mediated lifeline, it’s hard to imagine how else we might have managed even the marginal educational continuity we’ve achieved today.

But implementation of online learning has been flawed in many contexts. Moreover, teachers, parents, and students have suffered from a lack of emotional preparation for the sudden and dramatic change. According to Vail Health Foundation, a study conducted by Barnes and Noble Education showed that 65% of all students expressed anxiety over the difficulty of remaining focused and motivated while learning from home. Of those surveyed, 55% said that they felt emotional distress over the absence of “in-person social interactions” and 45% worried that this distress could negatively impact their performance in school.

These are challenges that online college students have long understood. Indeed, as the popularity and availability of online classes have accelerated, advances in academic and technological viability have far outpaced the availability of peripheral services. This is particularly concerning because research shows that students in higher education contexts are uniquely vulnerable to mental health challenges, many directly related to academic and social stressors.

...research shows that students in higher education contexts are uniquely vulnerable to mental health challenges, many directly related to academic and social stressors.”

A study from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration finds that “An area of student services that is lagging behind in online availability is Health and Wellness, especially Mental Health services (Jones, 2006). In 2012, the American College Health Association (ACHA) annual survey found that some of the factors students reported as impairing academic performance included anxiety (20%), depression (12%), stress (29%), and alcohol/drugs (6%).”

Below, we take a look at some of the features of online education that are having a direct impact on student mental health…

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Mental Health Challenge: Zoom Fatigue

For many of us, video conferencing has become a hallmark of the pandemic era. Face to face interaction was replaced, by necessity, with web-mediated engagement for everything from Zoom birthday parties and cocktail hours to medical appointments and, of course, classroom education. We are fortunate that we have access to this type of technology. At its best, video-conferencing has been a passable surrogate for direct human contact. Those who lived through smallpox outbreaks and the Spanish influenza were not so fortunate. But dependency on videoconferencing has its costs, especially in the context of education.

According to the Vail Health Foundation, Zoom Fatigue refers to a type of mental exhaustion uniquely experienced by online learners. In fairness to Zoom–a popular video conferencing service–this fatigue applies equally to Google Meet, Facetime, and other widely used platforms. Vail notes that this “exhaustion isn’t merely a matter of having tired eyes, a stiff neck, or lower back pain from video conferencing; science shows that remote learning forces the brain to work differently than it does in person. In a traditional classroom, our brains discern body language and other nonverbal cues, and experience increased dopamine amounts from face-to-face interaction.”

According to Vail Health, even if the effect is relatively imperceptible, your brain senses it and takes steps to adjust. The constant need to adjust can make your brain feel anxious and tired.

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Online Learning Strategy: Emphasize Autonomy, Incremental Learning, and Positive Reinforcement

There are a few ways that educators can offset this exhaustion. Try balancing video-mediated engagement with an array of tasks and experiences that simultaneously offer relief from conferencing and address the critical need for emotional validation. One way to do this is to emphasize the value of independent learning. Create opportunities for students to pursue individualized learning goals as a way to complement video-classroom discussions.

At its best, effective online education cultivates a sense of independence and promises the opportunity for learning that is self-directed and self-paced. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one way to improve the emotional experience of an online education is to “Give children choices about how they accomplish the tasks to encourage their sense of autonomy.”

At its best, effective online education cultivates a sense of independence and promises the opportunity for learning that is self-directed and self-paced.”

Combining opportunities for independence with real and effective outreach and intervention strategies can help students get the most out of an online education. Supplement this approach with assignments that are structured around attainable goals, immediate feedback, and clearly delineated breaks between objectives.

The APA (APA) advises ” breaking down challenging tasks into small, reasonable parts” and notes that “without this kind of help, more kids may give up when they struggle to complete a math problem, social studies project, or other assignment—which increases the odds that they will make negative assumptions about their abilities.”

Create opportunities for positive reinforcement followed by organic breaks in activity as a way of offsetting Zoom Fatigue.

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Mental Health Challenge: Feelings of Isolation

Since the advent of online education, experts have expressed concern over the psychological impact of academic isolation. Can the emotional and social benefits of the classroom experience be replicated online? Short answer–yes. But this requires meaningful teacher training, emotional preparation for students and families, proven methods of online engagement, and peripheral support services at least equal to those available for traditional students.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed that many universities and school systems are not fully equipped yet to provide this level of online instruction. As a result, many online students are missing the benefits of the classroom experience both academically and psychologically. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), “Limited social interaction impacts students’ attention and interest in school in general, so the reduced interaction through online learning platforms between students and their peers and teachers has greatly affected students’ relationship with their learning.”

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Online Learning Strategy: Nurture Personal Relationships

This challenge points to the importance of creating online educational strategies that compensate for this unmet need with heightened engagement, spontaneous discussion, and even the use of classroom time for some informal interaction.

It is also incumbent upon families and students to devote extra energy to social engagement. While classrooms, lecture halls, and student centers facilitate organic socializing, online learning occurs in something of a social vacuum. Students must create their own opportunities for socialization, and specifically around academic concerns. According to High Focus Centers, “studies have found that face-to-face interactions can help reduce depression and anxiety.”

Study groups, extra-curriculars, and even commiseration over an upcoming test during a late-night diner session can benefit students in ways that online education simply can’t simulate. This means that the best way to enjoy the benefits of online education is to supplement the experience with a healthy dose of real human interaction.

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Mental Health Challenge: Loss of Boundaries Between Home- and School-Life

Ironically, even as students grapple with feelings of isolation, many will also struggle to reconcile the blurred lines between school and home. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), students have experienced a very sudden erosion of the line separating personal and academic life.

This poses problems both for those who view home as a respite from academic stressors and for those with challenging home lives. As to the latter, the IDRA reports that students may “face at-home stressors, like the care and support of younger siblings engaging in their own learning, Internet connectivity issues, learning distractions, restricted privacy for completing classwork, inadequate space to study, and work obligations to help support their families during this period. These apply pressure from yet another angle to students’ normal school-related stressors and healthcare concerns heightened by the pandemic.”

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Online Learning Strategy: Build a Steady Routine

It’s important for educators, families, and students to find common ground in establishing meaningful boundaries. Just as working adults must find their own appropriate work-life balance in an era of 24/7 telcom access, so too must online students be entitled to balance.

One effective way to preempt this loss of boundaries is to create a steady and stable daily routine. Students should divide the day into clear segments, with the appropriate amount of time designated to classroom instruction, independent studying, homework, lunch, break time, and even social interaction.

Educators who are supportive of students as they establish personal boundaries will likely see better online learning outcomes, both academically and in terms of mental wellness.”

Most importantly, draw clear lines between the start and end of your school day. Protect the time you need to clear your mind, step away from your studies, and attend to both needs and wants in your personal life. Educators can support this strategy by setting clear objectives for students, both in terms of academic performance and the amount of time they are expected to dedicate to their daily academic responsibilities. Educators who are supportive of students as they establish personal boundaries will likely see better online learning outcomes, both academically and in terms of mental wellness.

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Mental Health Challenge: Loss of Direct Mental Health Support

One of the most immediate and obvious mental health challenges faced by online students is the loss of access to support services. For students at every level of education, school is a primary access point to outreach, diagnosis, intervention, and ongoing management of mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues.

According to the Vail Health Foundation, “Research shows that the school environment is critical for fostering academic motivation and social development, and many students rely on schools for mental health care. Among adolescents who received mental health services between 2012 and 2015, 35 percent received these services exclusively from school settings.”

With so many educational institutions moving to online education without sufficient preparation, an untold number of students may have lost access to these services. It’s impossible to calculate the toll this may take on students who have either experienced a gap in support during the pandemic, or who have faced emergent mental health challenges in the transition to online education. This has had particularly troubling consequences for at-risk students including those with physical, emotional, and learning disabilities as well as those from marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

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Online Learning Strategy: Seek Professional Help

While there are strategies that online educators can use to improve mental health support, and steps that online students can take to better manage their mental health needs, these strategies do not take the place of real mental health counseling and treatment. Whether you or somebody you know is experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, you should seek the support of a licensed mental health professional. In most cases, you should be able to reach out to providers affiliated with your school or college campus.

If you or somebody you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, or is in crisis, reach out immediately to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255/Nacional de Prevencion del Suicidio (1-888-628-9454), or Chat Online with a caring professional.

As we endure a fitful return to normalcy, many students are back in the physical classroom. But countless others continue their pursuit of education through online classes. In the midst of this patchwork educational landscape, the pandemic has revealed just how important it is for schools and districts to have plans in place should the need once again arise for a sudden transition to wholly online education. Part of that plan must include suitable mental health support and outreach, both for those who are currently engaged in online education at the primary, secondary, post-secondary, and graduate levels, and for those who may find themselves suddenly thrust into virtual learning.

And if you are new to online education, learn more with a look at our Top 10 Tips for Online Education Beginners.

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