Supporting the Mental Health Needs of Online Students

Every higher ed administrator knows that mental health services are becoming increasingly important on-campus. Fewer know that they are also important for students who study primarily or entirely online. This is the contention of Bonny Barr of Creighton University.

Writing in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Barr says, “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, as college students are accessing mental health services at increasing rates on college campuses.”

In an article entitled “Identifying and Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Online Students in Higher Education,” she discusses how institutions of higher education can make a serious effort to address this need for online students.

A need for mental health services
As the percentage of students studying online has increased, so has the need for online student services, including mental health services. Colleges and universities have responded, putting more and more services online. However, mental health services have lagged behind student services in general.

This can be problematic, since many students—including those online–will experience a mental health issue at some time in their college career. Barr writes:

In 2012, the American College Health Association annual survey found that some of the factors students reported as impairing academic performance included anxiety (20 percent), depression (12 percent), stress (29 percent), and alcohol/drugs (6 percent). [While] the survey did not distinguish between online and face-to-face enrollees… a student experiencing mental health difficulties that affect his/her attendance, coursework and grades may be enrolled in either type of course. 75 percent of mental illnesses first occur before age 24; the average age of onset is 18 to 24, when young people are often attending college… [E]arly intervention can prevent these issues from worsening.

Faculty members are the front line in identifying possible mental health issues and helping students connect with needed resources. They “generally believe it is their role to intervene when students display problems that interfere with academic performance such as poor attendance, falling asleep in class, failing to complete assigned work and/or being disruptive to the class.”

On the other hand, as Barr notes, “faculty…are not confident in their ability to identify difficulties or to know when problems warrant a counseling center referral.”

To help faculty identify possible issues, Barr divides possible warning signs into three categories:

  • Atypical behaviors, which may be behaviors that are simply not typical for a particular student.
  • Unusual behaviors,which Barr defines as “behavior that is abnormal or bizarre, even in the college community; such as paranoia, ongoing magical or fantastical thinking, or actions which interfere with the learning atmosphere.”
  • Poor academic performance,which can lead to a downward spiral as emotional issues compromise academic performance, which causes greater distress and anxiety.

(a change from the usual)



Becoming irritable/short-tempered/obsessive

Emails are accusatory, manipulative, sexually inappropriate or threatening

Late assignments from beginning of course

Sudden deterioration in quality of work

Discussion post contents are: Bizarre, fantastical, paranoid, disruptive, confused, or show disorientation

Failing quality of work from beginning of course

Abruptly begins turning in late assignments

Student clearly seems out of touch with reality

Not returning emails or phone calls

Becoming disrespectful in discussion posts


Not turning in work at all

Stops responding to email


Not re-doing work when given an opportunity

Content of work becomes negative/dark/odd in tone


Ongoing display of anxiety about assignments

Faculty members can begin to deal with these issues by approaching the student directly. Barr recommends the following:

Faculty should be clear, matter of fact, and to the point about the behaviors of concern. 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 is helpful for encouraging conversation about the problem. For example a comment like “It seems as if you are having a rough time” or “I sense that you are really stressed out” shows concern without confrontation. Student responses to faculty contact can range from relief, to panic, to defensiveness and anger. If anything in the conversation leads the faculty member to be alarmed or have increased concern about the student, then the academic discipline process can be initiated, the student can be offered campus resources for assistance, or referred for counseling and medical consultation.

Providing mental health services to online students
Colleges and universities should provide mental health services that are “highly visible, have active links to related sites and pages, be focused on student needs, and always provide contact information for reaching a live person for assistance,” Barr writes. She also 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 web-pages 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 insure that students or faculty who make inquiries for services receive a personal response.

More information can be found in Barr’s complete article in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.

Reprinted from Identifying and Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Online Students in Higher Education Distance Education Report, 18.21 (2014): 5,8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.