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An overwhelmed student sitting in a library staring at his laptop

Higher education practitioners who support online learners say these students need additional support with their mental health, according to a new survey.

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As online education grows as an option for college students, institutions are considering how best to accommodate students’ mental health and wellness needs.

Recent research from Uwill and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) found 82 percent of faculty, staff and administrators who work with online students have seen an increase in demand for mental health support over the past academic year.

The survey, published May 30, found 54 percent of faculty and staff believe there’s a lack of services tailored to online student needs, highlighting a need for additional resources that accommodate distance learners.

Online learners are often the overlooked group of students in higher education, says Uwill CEO Michael London, but online students are not a monolith and students will often transition between online to in-person learning in today’s landscape, which makes it important for campus leaders to consider how best to serve them.


The survey was fielded online and the 338 respondents included faculty, student success support staff, academic advisers, institutional leaders, counseling staff and administrators from public, private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions. Respondents were from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. as well as 36 countries.

Survey says: The demand among online learners wasn’t shocking to London, because it’s part of a larger trend of mental health needs, he says, but really highlights how demand can put pressure on those who are not licensed professionals to provide care.

Seven in 10 respondents say online students reach out regarding their mental health concerns either occasionally, frequently or very frequently. However, over one-third (37 percent) felt inadequately trained to recognize or respond to students’ mental health issues.

Treating students’ mental health is “not what I, as a campus leader, would want faculty and staff to be doing,” London says. Instead, campus leaders should focus on training faculty and staff to get students to the right place.

Four in five faculty and staff say they have a high level of interest in receiving training on how to better support their students’ mental well-being.

The greatest barrier to online students accessing supports, respondents say, is a lack of awareness of available services (58 percent), financial constraints and insurance coverage issues (46 percent) and limited appointment availability (44 percent), on top of a lack of services for this student population (54 percent) or a lack of services in general (45 percent).

One-third of campus stakeholders say they believe students are not satisfied with the mental health services offered by their institution.

Online student mental health in focus: A spring 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed, conducted by College Pulse, found 68 percent of students who take exclusively online courses (n = 80) experience chronic stress, 14 percentage points higher than the total response. Over half of these students say balancing school and other obligations is one of the biggest contributors to their academic stress in college, while the same rough number said exams are a contributor.

Online-only students were most likely to say stress is negatively impacting their ability to focus, learn and do well in school a great deal (39 percent) or somewhat (47 percent), compared to their in-person and hybrid learning peers.

So what? Based on the survey’s findings, higher education practitioners and leaders can prioritize the following actions:

  • Build community for students. Compared to their peers who take some or all of their classes in-person, online learners are more likely to be isolated from their classmates and need additional help from the institution to get connected. Online learning communities or social media platforms can help build relationships among cohorts.
  • Check in with students. Sometimes it can be difficult for a staff or faculty member to know when an online learner is struggling because there’s less face-to-face interaction. Institutions can utilize their data to become aware of those with additional needs, tracking assignment submission, LMS log-ins or meetings with support staff to gauge student health, London says. While not every online institution has robust mental health care, many provide wraparound coaching or mentorship support, which could translate into filling this need.
  • Invest in professional development. One in four online-only students say their professors have a responsibility to help with their mental health, according to Student Voice data. Campus leaders can support faculty and staff members in feeling more comfortable aiding students’ well-being or referring them to a professional through training or certification opportunities.
  • Invest in digital mental health initiatives. While two-thirds of respondents in the Uwill survey say students have access to onsite counseling, only 39 percent said those same resources were available online. There are a variety of online providers who target college students and their experiences that can accommodate the competing priorities of online students. Having a service available also builds capacity of faculty and staff, says London, because they don’t have to focus on those issues, but instead refer them to others.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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