December 2020

E-learning and Mental Health: How badly I miss my class fellows? teaser image
E-learning brings loss of human contact: a fundamental requisite for a social life. Students have reported anxiety, depression, stress, schizophrenia, and panic disorder during their online coursework. Several have dropped their courses, waiting for the universities to fully reopen. Students, spending an extended amount of time on ‘screens’ are prone to a great mental health crisis compared to traditional face-to-face learning. Several crave to socialize with their friends again.

E-learning lacks direct sensory contact with students who are at a distant geographic location, making it difficult for the faculty to notice any signs of mental illness in the students.

Students who previously had the chance to roam around the campus, play sports, and participate in extra-circular are now glued to their laptop screen throughout the completion of their course work, exacerbating their susceptibility to depression and mental illness.

The administration, staff, campus community, and faculty must understand that students learning online have the same needs as those students studying in conventional classrooms. An online support system is fundamental as much as it is needed on the ground.

The faculty, administration and campus community should collaborate to find early signs of anxiety and depression in students taking online classes. This is an uphill task. In a traditional classroom setting the faculty can interact face-to-face with the students, having direct experiential contact, which enables the faculty to pick up mental health warning signs: deterioration in hygiene, lethargy, absences, mood swings, and short attention spans.

The following five recommendations can help. First, professors and instructors must be the whistleblowers as they are the primary connection between the student and the university. Any abrupt change in personality, behaviour and academic performance of the student should raise an eyebrow. Sudden deterioration in the quality of students’ work, volatile behaviour, late assignments, unresponsiveness to emails or not picking phone calls are some of the examples of atypical behaviour. Faculty familiar with services for distance students and who have the institutional backing can help those in distress.

Second, for professors of online courses, the primary academic issues that cause concern are students failing to complete assignments on time, a lack of presence in online discussions, and failure to respond to emails/phone calls. Sometimes these problems are due to mental health concerns. Early intervention can help reduce the chance of a student's problems turning into a crisis later on.

Third, when an instructor identifies the need to address a mental health concern; a conversation should be initiated.  "It seems as if you are having trouble" or "I sense that you are anxious" shows concern without confrontation. Moreover, the course expectations can be reviewed as well as the necessary criteria for the student to continue in the course. Non-judgmental acceptance of the student's state of mind helps encourage the student to talk about the problem. Later, the student can be referred for counseling and medical consultation.

Fourth, best practices in mental health resources for online students need to be accessible via the internet from any geographic location. These online student services need to be highly conspicuous and always provide contact information for reaching a live person for assistance.

Fifth, the universities can have ‘pre-enrollment services’ describing online programs and courses, self-assessment tools for the students to evaluate their readiness for online programs. Unexpected course objectives, unfamiliar evaluation methods can lead to mental health difficulties for the students as the coursework progresses.

Timely intervention can help many students escape anxiety, recover from depression and complete their long-awaited and long-winded degrees through online education. Varsities offering mental health education, crisis services, self-help services, disability and counseling services can nip the evil in the bud.

- Muhammad Ali

Muhammad is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil Engineering.

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