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Survey: Faculty and Staff Observe Increasing Demand for Mental Health Support Among Online Learners

More than 80% of college faculty and staff members have noticed increasing demand among online learners for mental health services this past school year, according to a new survey from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and teletherapy company Uwill.Michael LondonMichael London

The survey – conducted by OLC in March 2024 – garnered responses from 338 college faculty and staff members from a mix of public and private institutions nationally, asking about their beliefs and observations of the mental health of their online students.

“There have been some surveys that have been done that focus on online students,” said OLC CEO Dr. Jennifer Mathes. “What we wanted to know is, if you're a faculty member teaching online courses or you're a staff member who works with online students, how comfortable are you in working with those students that are coming to you for help?”

Online learners face a number of hurdles when it comes to accessing mental health support, the most prominently cited one by respondents (62%) being time constraints, according to the report.

Other cited barriers included lack of knowledge of support services (59%), lack of services that cater to their needs (55%), financial and health insurance issues (47%), and lack of available counseling appointments (45%).

Not only does current-day mental healthcare vary in quality, but it can be difficult for online learners to find therapists in a reasonable amount of time, said Uwilll CEO Michael London. And on-site campus counseling can be hard to reach for students taking their courses online, who likely don’t live near campus or are unlikely to visit.

Students may also find that support services are limited or unavailable, either because counselors’ state licensing restrictions prevent them from assisting students living elsewhere or because the students – who are likely to be working full- or part-time – cannot come to appointments during usual business hours, London wrote in a later email.

While two-thirds of respondents (67%) said students have access to on-site counseling, about a third (39%) said the same about access to third-party teletherapy services, according to the survey.

Colleges having primarily on-site support clashes with the very “spirit” of online learning, said London, adding that it doesn’t make sense for students to be able to access courses and mentoring through online means, but not mental health support.

“It's an understanding that people have other things within their lives that made them choose to be online students, for the most part,” London said. “So, if someone is either holding a job full-time or is a parent of two or three, they are just not hanging out in the student center.

“It's not why they chose the online education in the first place.”

In the absence of having viable mental health solutions on hand, many online learners are turning to faculty and staff for help. But the people being asked for help aren’t feeling as though they’re qualified to give it, the report noted.

Although a majority of respondents (71%) answered that online students “occasionally, frequently, or very frequently” reach out about their mental health problems, a sizable portion (37%) said they felt inadequately trained to identify and address such issues.

It’s surprising how people who are not licensed therapists are being asked to help those who might need licensed therapists, London said.

“We need to be able to provide training to faculty and staff so that when a student comes to them and expresses that they've got concerns, [they will] be able to help them respond to the students, direct them to the right place, [and] at least give them enough information so that students feel [heard, and they have a place they can go to],” Mathes said.

The faculty and staff members appeared to be asking for that kind of training, according to the report. Most respondents (83%) expressed high interest in being trained on how to support the mental well-being of their online learners.

In the current day, institutions offering courses online can no longer get away with offering just in-person services, London said. There is an awareness that students have needs for online support. And if the schools don’t provide services to accommodate those needs, they risk being called out, he said.

Several third-party teletherapy and digital mental health intervention (DMHI) programs are available and employed by U.S. colleges and universities, but a recent critical review of some of the most common ones has shown a dearth of scientific study about their effectiveness and reach.

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