Mental Health and Online Education | Eunice Collins

24 October 2023

The book of Genesis tells the story of the fall of man and its consequences for the world.  As a perfect world became tainted, humans were no longer immune to illnesses including mental health conditions. Today, millions of people experience mental health conditions that affect their ability to do everyday things like study, work and take part in family life. Half these people have mental health symptoms by the age of 14, while they’re still in school(1). Another 25% have symptoms before they turn 25(2).

The rapidly growing brains of children and young people are highly sensitive to the environment. An important part of that environment is school. We know academic achievement and student wellbeing are closely connected in a two-way relationship. Focusing on mental health in schools is imperative if students are to achieve their full potential and grow to become competent, independent adults.

While a traditional school environment might be advantageous for some students as they navigate their mental health challenges, others may thrive in an online learning environment. The best environment depends on a range of individual, family and community factors. 

This article considers some reasons why online education might be the best choice for some students with a diagnosed mental health condition, or those facing challenges that could have lasting impacts on their mental health, such as bullying, social pressure, or access issues related to disability. Before exploring these further, it’s helpful to consider what mental health means in the context of a Christian education.

 

Mental health in the educational context

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes mental health as a state in which people can cope with life stresses, realise their potential, learn and work well, and contribute to their communities(3). WHO’s definition recognises that mental wellbeing is important for learning.

Student mental health is closely intertwined with their overall wellbeing and success in school. A student with positive mental health is better equipped to engage in learning, build positive relationships, and thrive in their academic journey.

In Christian education, we also need to consider the Biblical perspective. While God’s word doesn’t offer a tidy definition of mental health, it does call us to train our minds for godliness by focusing on heavenly wisdom.

Among many verses related to mental wellness, Christians are told to:

  • be transformed by the renewal of our minds (rather than conforming to this world)(4)
  • focus our thinking on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy(5) 
  • not worry about anything, but submit our prayers to God with thankfulness(6)
  • set our minds on things of the Spirit, not of the flesh(7).

In Christian education, building mental wellbeing is one aspect of training students to be faithful servants of Jesus.

 

Mental health among school-age students in Australia

The prevalence of mental health problems among school-age Australians is a serious concern. Approximately 14% of 4-17-year-olds experienced a mental health condition in the last 12 months(8). One in ten young people aged 12-17 have engaged in self-harm, while almost one in five 11-17-year-olds experience high or very high levels of psychological distress(9). Disturbingly, suicide remains among the leading causes of death for young Australians, including those of school age(10). These figures highlight the urgency of creating supportive educational environments that foster student resilience and mental wellbeing.

School-related factors impacting student mental health

Within a traditional classroom setting, various factors may adversely affect student mental health:

Academic pressure

While some students thrive in a competitive school environment that rewards academic excellence, others do not. High expectations and the relentless pursuit of good grades can sometimes lead to stress and feelings of overwhelm. This may contribute to anxiety, disturbed sleep, and poor self-esteem. 

Bullying

Bullying – both face-to-face and online – is a pervasive issue in schools. Approximately one in four Australian students in grades 4 to 9 report being bullied at least every few weeks(11). Bullying can have severe consequences for a student's mental health, including:

  • isolation – students may withdraw to avoid further mistreatment.
  • low self-esteem – repeated belittling can erode a student's confidence and self-worth.
  • depression and anxiety – victims of bullying often experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.
  • suicidal thoughts – in some cases, the persistent trauma of bullying can contribute to thoughts of self-harm and even suicide.

Social pressure

Social pressure encompasses the standards imposed by peers, society, and social media. Students often feel they need to conform to these expectations to fit in at school. This can lead to mental distress such as:

  • identity confusion – students may struggle to form a godly identity when striving to meet norms set by others.
  • fear of rejection – fear of failing to meet social expectations can lead to isolation and avoidance of social situations.
  • stress and anxiety – related to perceived pressure to meet social norms.

Rigid structure

Traditional classrooms often have set structures and schedules. For some students, such as those with disability or diverse learning styles, this may result in frustration and disengagement.

Physical environment

Despite best efforts made by schools to provide inclusive learning spaces, the school’s physical environment may also impact student mental health. For example, a student with sensory processing problems might find it hard to concentrate in a noisy and visually distracting classroom. Or a student who uses a wheelchair may not be able to access some areas of the school, leading to frustration.

 

How online education can support mental health in students

Addressing these factors is crucial for creating learning conditions that promote student mental health. For some students, online education enables them to thrive by alleviating stressors and providing flexible, personalised instruction in safe and supportive surroundings.

Here are five ways online education can foster student mental wellbeing.

1.  Personalised learning

Online education allows for tailored learning experiences that cater to individual needs and learning styles. Students can progress at their own pace, focusing on areas where they need more time and practice, while moving ahead in subjects they grasp quickly. For example, a high school student might struggle with math but excel in science. In a traditional classroom, they might feel left behind when the math teacher moves on to new topics. With online education, they can access additional math resources and practice problems at their own speed, boosting confidence and reducing the stress associated with falling behind. In the meanwhile, they can move ahead with science.

2.  Flexible environment

Online learning gives students flexibility to choose their learning environment. This can help reduce the anxiety associated with attending a physical classroom, especially for students who may have social anxiety or sensory issues. For instance, a student with severe social anxiety is likely to feel overwhelmed in a crowded classroom. With online education, they can learn from the comfort and safety of their own home. This allows them to focus on study and engage in socialisation at a pace guided by their mental health professional.

3.  Reduced bullying and social pressure

For students who’ve been bullied, online education can be a refuge of freedom and safety. It provides a buffer from in-person bullying and social pressures, enabling students to engage in learning without fear of harassment. 
Students can engage in discussions and collaborate with peers online without the fear of being judged or ridiculed, promoting a healthier social experience. Parental supervision also means any cyberbullying attempts can be quickly recognised and dealt with.
For example, a student who has experienced bullying can participate in virtual class discussions without fear of being targeted by classmates. This newfound sense of safety enables them to contribute more actively, positively impacting their self-esteem.

4.  Flexible and discreet support

Digital platforms can integrate resources for mental health education, support, and counselling, allowing students to access them discreetly, without the stigma that may be associated with seeking help in a traditional school setting. A student with anxiety, for example, could access digital support from their online school’s student wellbeing professional, empowering them to address challenges at a time and place that works best for them.

5.  Safe collaborative learning

Online classrooms facilitate collaboration among students from diverse backgrounds and locations. These interactions can promote empathy, tolerance, and a sense of belonging, reducing feelings of isolation. A student in Victoria, for instance, could collaborate on a group project with students in other states. Through virtual discussions and shared online spaces, they gain exposure to different perspectives, enriching their learning experience and broadening their horizons.

 

Harnessing technology for student potential

For educators, principals, and everyone with an interest in student wellbeing, the responsibility to prioritise student mental health is paramount. By embracing the potential of online education, we can create personalised learning experiences that foster individual wellbeing. 

Online education isn't just about delivering curriculum; it's about fostering a holistic environment where students thrive – academically, socially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Most importantly, it provides a pathway for students who might struggle in traditional classrooms. This includes students who have experienced bullying or have a mental health condition, and those who can benefit from a flexible learning approach and one-to-one parental support.
The power of technology allows us to provide tools and resources to create a supportive educational landscape that prepares each and every student to fulfil their God-given potential and grow into adults who love and serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength(12).

 


 
Author: Eunice Collins, School Psychologist
Eunice is a registered psychologist with almost a decade of experience working with children and families within a school context. She has a Masters in Educational & Developmental Psychology from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Eunice is currently the School Psychologist at Australian Christian College - Moreton.

 


References:

(1) Kessler, RD et al. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62: p. 593-602.
(2) ibid
(3) World Health Organization (2022). Mental health. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response. Accessed 18.8.2023
(4) Romans 12:2
(5) Philippians 4:8
(6)    Philippians 4:6-7
(7) Romans 8:6
(8) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2023). Prevalence and impact of mental illness. https://www.aihw.gov.au/mental-health/overview/mental-illness. Accessed 18.8.2023.
(9) Beyond Blue (N.D.). Statistics. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/media/statistics. Accessed 18.8.2023.
(10) AIHW (2023). Leading causes of death. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/leading-causes-of-death. Accessed 18.8.2023.
(11) Bullying. No Way! (2023) Bullying in schools facts and figures. https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/understanding/Documents/infographic-facts-figures.pdf. Accessed 18.8.2023.
(12) Mark 12:30

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