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Meeting the needs of students with mental health challenges in online learning environments

Annie Storkey, The Open University

Distance learning might seem to offer an ideal opportunity for students with mental health challenges to study for a degree, as it is flexible and can be done from home with the student controlling time management and engagement. However, it is not without its difficulties. Richardson (2015) found that distance learning students with mental health challenges were significantly less likely to complete and pass their modules than students without; the odds of students with mental health challenges with no additional disabilities completing their course were found to be 39 per cent lower than those of other students. Yet the students who completed their modules were just as likely to get good grades as other students, once other variables were taken into account. The evidence suggests there needs to be further exploration of why students with mental health challenges don’t complete their modules, and how they can be empowered to achieve their goals.

While there is much literature available on mental health and wellbeing in traditional university settings, there is little research that explores the experience of distance learning students with specific mental health challenges. The dearth of information is noted in the research of McManus and colleagues (2017), who looked at the barriers to learning faced by these students. Their qualitative case study analysis of 12 online learning students with mental health challenges identified three barriers to learning: impact of impairment, personal and situational circumstance, and the learning environment.

The impact of impairment was demonstrated in anxiety as assignments and exams approached, which exacerbated mental health symptoms and prompted delaying as a coping strategy, which further added to the stress (McManus, Dryer, & Henning, 2017). Mental health conditions and medication caused cognitive difficulties such as poor concentration and slow processing, while self-confidence was low in half of participants. Although many of the students had enrolled in online education to structure their studies around their disability, employment and family, nearly half experienced difficulties with family expectations and all cited a lack of support from their family. Two-thirds of participants had other disabilities which they cited as a negative factor in their studies, and nearly half experienced financial hardship. The learning environment proved challenging in terms of feelings of isolation, and one-third of students noted lack of communication or support from academic staff and disappointment with grades. There was also a fear of the stigma of mental health disability and difficulty with identity.

‘Although many students had enrolled in online education to structure their studies around their disability, employment and family, nearly half experienced difficulties with family expectations and all cited a lack of support from their family. ’

McManus and colleagues’ (2017) research is insightful on the barriers facing students with mental health challenges within an online learning environment, but there is little academic research on how these issues might be overcome, especially from a student–tutor perspective. In its research about the challenges facing student mental health conducted with university staff and students within the wider university community, the student mental health charity Student Minds (n.d.) identified issues such as stigma, confidence in disclosure and poor understanding from others. ‘Poor general understanding about mental health problems’ was fourth on the university staff list of challenges facing student mental health and may indicate academics’ own lack of confidence in their knowledge and skills to navigate this stigmatised subject. Erskine and MacPhail (2015) report that academic staff may not be skilled or trained in responding to challenging mental health behaviours in an online environment.

In this time of Covid-19, with many people in lockdown and more higher education institutions moving to online teaching, the issue of mental health is becoming more important. If the needs of students with mental health challenges are to be addressed, there needs to be more research in this area; and there needs to be an inclusive discussion which empowers these disadvantaged students.


References

Erskine, R., & MacPhail, E. (2015). Addressing the needs of academic staff in supporting students with mental health conditions in online programmes at a distributed university. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 3(1), 122–127. https://doi.org/10.14297/jpaap.v3i1.150

McManus, D., Dryer, R., Henning, M. (2017). Barriers to learning online experienced by students with a mental health disability. Distance Education, 38(3), 336–352. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2017.1369348

Richardson, J. T. E. (2015). Academic attainment in students with mental health difficulties in distance education. International Journal of Mental Health, 44(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/00207411.2015.1035084

Student Minds. (n.d.) Grand challenges in student mental health. Leeds: Student Minds. https://www.studentminds.org.uk/uploads/3/7/8/4/3784584/grand_challenges_report_for_public.pdf