Hope for Navigating Mental Illness in Online Learning: Connection, Community & Compassion

Published by Cathryn Mattimore
on Feb 12, 2021

Learning to navigate mental illness challenges as a higher ed student is something that especially resonates with me. I’m currently working towards a Master’s degree in eLearning and Learning Design while managing a significant mental illness that can be debilitating. Aside from my own experience, I’ve seen the prevalence of mental illness amongst my peers, particularly since the start of COVID. 

The commonality of mental illness is supported in the research; the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that one-third of college students meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health problem and those with mental illness are twice as likely not to complete their degree. How can higher education help all learners attain academic success, including those in disadvantaged groups like those with mental illness? Are there best practices in place to ensure  online learning experiences offer all student groups the same opportunity for success? During my academic journey,  I have personally experienced the benefits of such practices, for example, humanizing online instruction, trauma informed pedagogy, as well as the cruciality for all higher ed institutions to provide and promote mental health resources available to all students. 

While I was a traditional undergraduate student, my mental illness was relatively mild. I was medicated, but the illness was manageable. I was able to complete my undergraduate degree at Smith College in 2012 without any significant mental illness barriers. It wasn’t until age 22, when my mental illness manifested into something much more severe, impactful, and life disrupting. I have limited personal experience with on campus resources for mental health but I’ve witnessed, as an online Master’s degree student, the unique opportunity online learning has to support students with mental illness obstacles. It’s important to note that the Master’s program I’m enrolled in was designed specifically for online instruction. I mention this because it speaks to the necessity of designing online courses intentionally, and it demonstrates how technology should be – and can be – a catalyst to enhance human connection and deepen learning experiences. 

“Given the severity of the episode, however, I was candid with my professors, who were understanding and flexible with me. Without their compassion, I don’t know if I would have successfully completed the quarter. I felt comfortable disclosing my diagnosis because the online environment felt nurturing, accepting, and safe.”

I recently completed my second quarter, and I’m extremely proud of my advancement in the program. This past quarter was especially challenging since I was experiencing mental illness symptoms which were magnified by COVID19. I am registered with my institution’s disability resource center, which recognizes my mental illness diagnosis as a disability, and gives me extra time on assignments. Given the severity of the episode, however, I was candid with my professors, who were understanding and flexible with me. Without their compassion, I don’t know if I would have successfully completed the quarter. I felt comfortable disclosing my diagnosis because the online environment felt nurturing, accepting, and safe. Right from the courses’ start, my professors provided personalized and thoughtful feedback and frequently connected with the class both as a group and on an individual level. My peers and I also participated in meaningful class discussions which grew a strong sense of comradery and fueled a vibrant virtual intellectual community. I feel incredibly fortunate my online Master’s program seeks to craft a humanizing online learning experience through intentional course design, and by cultivating connection. 

I first learned about humanizing online learning when I attended OLC Ideate’s virtual conference in May 2020,  right around the same time I was wrapping up my first quarter. There I gained insight into what faculty and learning designers can do to design online courses and incorporate best practices to be more inclusive to students with mental illness, and who have experienced trauma. More recently, I attended “Join the Learning Evolution”, a one-day virtual conference hosted by PADLA, with a repository of 20+ webinars from leaders in the online learning field. Like themes from OLC, PADLA’s  conference  emphasized the importance of humanizing online learning, especially in response to COVID and its significant effect on mental health challenges faced by many learners. Higher Education’s trend towards humanizing online learning leaves me feeling hopeful for the next generation of learners.

“Online students facing mental illness challenges need informed faculty support and intentional course design that, in particular, seeks to weave in opportunities for consistent connection between faculty and other students.”

I noticed commonalities between the ideas presented at both conferences and the design and humanizing elements of my graduate courses. Karen Costa,  leader in trauma informed instruction, is a frequent presenter at OLC conferences. (I reference  her work in a previous blog.) She cites compassion, awareness, and honesty are necessary qualities for all instructors. Online students facing mental illness challenges need informed faculty support and intentional course design that, in particular, seeks to weave in opportunities for consistent connection between faculty and other students. Learning designers and faculty must strive to create safe spaces which can be cultivated through positive reinforcement, consistent communication, and by building a sense of community in the online environment. By prioritizing learner centricity and human connection, online courses can offer a more inclusive and ultimately more purposeful learning experience. Through humanizing course design and teaching philosophies enriched with compassion, learners with mental illness and trauma, will be better positioned for academic achievement,  which helps lay the groundwork for future career success.  As a virtual learner living with mental illness, experience has shown me compassion, transparency, and connection must underlie online learning for me to achieve success. 

In Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now, Mays Imad explains trauma on a neurological level and also provides strategies for trauma informed instruction. She encourages professors to present authentically, foster meaningful connection and to cultivate a space built on trust. She concludes her piece by illuminating an educator’s power to inspire hope. As a lifelong learner, this resonated with me deeply, and as a future instructional designer, shined a new light on that role. She writes, “We impart hope — cultivating our students’ and our ability to continue learning, to connect, to love and to dream — of a better future for us and our fellow human beings.” 

When I am entrenched in my mental illness, I misplace my love of learning and the world seems heavy and small. Despite periods of immersion, I always try to stay hopeful. A skill that was taught — and learned.

I remain hopeful for the next generation of learners because I see higher education and  learning design now anchored in diversity, equity and inclusion. Here at O’Donnell Learn, these are integral components to our Purposeful Learning Framework, an approach we use both in our design process and teach to faculty for theirs. Mental Illness and trauma can be significant hindrances for learning and student success, especially in an online setting. It’s crucial that we continue to innovate methods to support learners in all disadvantaged groups, including mental illness and trauma. As a future learning designer, I hope to harness my own unique and informed path to create effective change, and elevate  universal equity in the online learning world. 

Further exploration: Our recent webinar “Building Communities in the Classroom and with Faculty” offers techniques you can easily implement to create connection and community in the online learning environment. Watch the webinar here.

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