Health and Wellness from a Distance: University Services for Online Students

Friday, September 6, 2019

Health and wellness services for online students are especially essential, as college students are accessing mental health services at increasing rates on college campuses. Today, however, there is also an increasing population of full-time and part-time online university students that do not spend as much time on campus as the traditional student.

What kinds of health and wellness resources do universities offer for their online students?

College Students Need Mental Health Services 
A New York Times article published in February 2019 highlights that “students and [university] institutions are grappling with issues like the surge in school shootings and trauma from suicides and sexual assault… it’s not just the crises that have shaken this generation – it’s the grinding, everyday stresses, from social media pressures to relationship problems to increased academic expectations.” 

According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year and over 40 percent said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning. These feelings may stem from financial burdens, uncertainty about career prospects, pressure to excel academically, and other stressors. 

Between fall 2009 and spring 2015, the number of students who visited campus counseling centers increased by more than 30 percent according to a 2015 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Many students today expect their colleges to help them cope. This applies to both undegraduate students and graduate students who are working to earn master's degrees or doctorate degrees.

Dr. Shane Owens, a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist and contributor to US News Health, said, “One of the things that we know from research is that peer to peer resources are a very good start. Students are much more likely to talk to a friend or an RA about the problems that they’re having rather than an [university] administrator or someone who appears to be an administrator working at a counseling center.”

While this is a good first step, students experiencing mental health issues may need to do more than just talk to their peers. “People will just talk to their peers and don’t seek the professional help. So, college staff working with peer to peer groups is really the gold standard in getting people to help”, added Owens.

Step onto almost any of the best college campuses in the U.S. these days and we can assure you that you will be able to find whole offices dedicated to student health and wellness, specifically mental health and wellness. You will most likely find an office dedicated to Student Psychological Services. College resident Advisors (RAs), living in dormitories with fellow students, receive training so that they may act as psychological and mental health resources for their residence halls. 

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? University staff and trained peer advisors working together to provide mental health resources for college students on campus. But—hold on—what about students who are earning their degrees online? 

Doctor Daniel Eisenberg, a University of Michigan professor who researches the effectiveness of online treatment, shares thoughts about online mental health programs. “One of the best parts of campuses is that we have this in-person [college] community where we can support students, so why start doing things online? It’s a debate or question that’s hanging over higher education.” 

If it is understood what on-campus resources are best, what can we do for the students that rarely come to campus? Online students, whether part-time online or full-time online, spend considerably less time on college campuses than full-time, on-campus students. Less time on campus means less peer to peer interaction and added barriers to accessing in-person mental health services that are easily accessed by on-campus students.

What health and wellness services should be available for online students?
Bonny Barr, higher education administrator at Creighton University, says in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, “Providing online student services is an important component of these distance programs and is often required by accrediting bodies. Health and wellness services for online students are especially essential.”

Barr offers a list of best practices for providing student mental health services online from “Creating Web-Based Student Services for Online Learners” by Pat Shea and Sue Armitage.
  1. Pre-enrollment services: On the webpages describing online programs and courses, self-assessment tools can be posted for students to evaluate their readiness for online programs. This “front-end” focus on the personality characteristics and work habits necessary for online academic success can assist in preventing problems after admission and enrollment. One study, of mostly online graduate students, found that students most at-risk for dropping out of online courses were those who were less motivated, had less-stable home study environments, and less computer confidence compared to successful online students. These are factors which can stress an enrolled online student and lead to mental health difficulties as coursework progresses.
  2. Mental health education: Provide links to articles on issues common to college students (e.g. stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse).
  3. Crisis services: Prominently display phone numbers for crisis and/or suicide hotlines.
  4. Self-help services: Provide access to tools for self-evaluation, with accompanying articles on strategies for coping with common mental health issues.
  5. Referral to disability services: Provide links to the institution’s office for students with disabilities. Online students who are new to college may have previously unaddressed disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or learning disabilities. Students with documented diagnoses of mental disorders are entitled to reasonable academic accommodations.
  6. Counseling services: Provide links to the campus counseling center and clearly state what services are/are not available to distance students. Feedback channels need to be in place to ensure that students or faculty who make inquiries for services receive a personal response.

Are you an online college student looking for resources? Here are three tips.

3 Tips for Online University Students
Tip 1: Know your resources before you need them.
Preventive measures are key when it comes to mental health, just as with physical health. When long-term stressors build up into an immediate emergency, it can become more challenging to identify effective strategies to address the problem.

Pay attention to your stress and what’s going on academically, socially, and personally, and try not to wait until the last minute to ask for help.

Tip 2: Explore options to discover what works for you.
Limited distance counseling services do exist. Remember: counseling is just one of many mental health care options. Your university should be able to provide online mental health resources and these resources can come in many forms. They may be self-help support apps, wellness apps, therapy assistance online sites. 

Tip 3: Connect with a community, no matter where you are
While many online students live with others and are involved in their local communities, a student’s support system benefits greatly from the presence of peers who share and can empathize with their university experience.

Engage with classmates and instructors live whenever possible, both in and out of the classroom.

Try using phone or video conferencing to complete group projects or check in with faculty; it can offer a personal face-to-face experience while saving the extra time it takes to communicate in writing.

You can also get involved with peers both on and off campus by joining a student community or organization and connecting with fellow classmates on the Ecampus Learning Community site in Canvas.

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