Mental Health in the Age of Online Learning

By Ryder Davis 

Nearly one year ago, schools across the United States, and the world over, transitioned to online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the ensuing months and semesters, a growing number of students have faced mental  health challenges as they have adjusted to remote learning and social isolation. 

Studies reveal the impact. “46% of teachers reported encountering student mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, academic stress, trauma and grief more often than they did before the pandemic” (study by George Mason University). At Boston University, students have taken various approaches to deal with the shifting learning environments, and the ensuing mental health crises some have encountered. 

“Online school has been extremely challenging,” shared Ralph*, a sophomore at Boston University. “Attending class and doing homework on the same device can often be challenging. I feel that my mental health has diminished as a result of online learning.” 

The shift in balance from in-person to online learning has been a challenge. “Although online learning is convenient, part of what [made] school manageable is balance. With online learning, I find little to no balance. Attending school and doing homework now is comparable to sitting at your computer for 10 hours straight.” 

Like many other students, Ralph looked for ways to cope with the stress and pressure of online school, such as just getting outside. “I now attempt to leave my house at least once a day, and I try [to] workout or do some sort of physical activity once a day,” he said. “I have personally felt that when I do these things, my day becomes better overall.” 

Elliot*, a BU junior, said he needs to get outside between classes. “The fresh air I get when taking walks outside helps me clear my mind after having to stare at a screen for hours on end,” he said. 

“Especially on a day where I might have four classes, I am pretty much online for the entire day. If I don’t take a walk or two I start to feel stir crazy and extremely overwhelmed. And in Boston, where it gets dark so early, if you have classes all day then you end up seeing no sunlight.” 

The state of perpetual darkness spent sitting in front of a computer that Elliot referenced can often lead to serious mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression. A recent survey distributed by the nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance revealed that “more than one in four students reported an increase in lost sleep because of worry, feeling unhappy or depressed, feeling constantly under strain or experiencing a loss of confidence in themselves.” 

Another BU sophomore, Jane*, shared she has extreme difficulty focusing online, as well as Zoom fatigue. “There is no personality to online learning,” she said. “I miss actually learning from someone in front of me. Without that, I have started to feel anxiety during the Zooms that I’m not learning enough, or not retaining any of the information the lecturer is giving me online.” 

She added that her anxiety subsides when she physically sits in a classroom with other classmates beside her. But when it comes time to log on for another long Zoom session, her anxiety spikes. Like Elliot, she looks to exercise and outdoor activities, particularly basketball, to cope, but cannot always do so due to Boston’s frequently horrific weather. Jane hopes that her anxious thoughts will subside once she can safely return to a normal classroom setting.

However, Kirsten Beronio, director of policy and regulatory affairs at the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare, expressed worry about the long-term effects of the pandemic and of online learning on students, which may continue far after lockdowns end. “We [at the NABH] are concerned about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning on students,” she said. “We expect an increased need for mental health and substance use disorder services for years to come even after social interactions and education return to normal.” 

It is important to remember students’ mental health during these trying times. As they navigate various mental health challenges stemming from their transition to online learning, many use various coping strategies such as walking outside, playing basketball, or simply calling a friend. 

Ryder Davis is a student at Boston University and a youth presenter for NAMI WLA’s Ending the Silence program.

* names changed to preserve anonymity