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Identifying and Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Online Students in Higher Education

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration Volume 17, Number 2 ISSN 1556-3847


89% of colleges and universities in the United States offer online courses and of those institutions 58% offer degree programs that are completely online (Parker, Lenhart & Moore, 2011).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 for severe problems at increasing rates on college campuses (Gallagher, Sysko, & Zhang, 2001). This paper outlines how institutions of higher learning can prepare faculty to identify mental health needs of online students and suggests effective administrative policies and programs to address these student needs. Online enrollments were less than 10% of all students in 2002 when the Sloan Foundation began their annual surveys on the topic. By 2011, 32% of all enrolled post-secondary students were taking at least one online course and the numbers have been increasing steadily (Allen & Seaman, 2013). The rising percentage of online students has led to awareness by college administrations that these students have the same needs as students in a traditional classroom setting. Students who want to learn online also want to access their student services online. For learners enrolled in online programs, and living in geographically distant locations, internet access to student services is essential. These students' needs have resulted in revision of college and university policies and the creation of extensive web-based services for technical support in online courses, enrollment services, financial aid, and library resources. An area of student services that is lagging behind in online availability is Health and Wellness, especially Mental Health services (Jones, 2006). In 2012, the American College Health Association (ACHA) annual survey found that some of the factors students reported as impairing academic performance included anxiety (20%), depression (12%), stress (29%), and alcohol/drugs (6%). 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. All students can experience periods of stress-related anxiety and mood alteration; and early intervention can prevent these issues from worsening. Severe mental illnesses such as Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety disorder, Schizophrenia and Panic disorder occur in 26% of the U.S. population in all age groups (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005). In fact, 75% of mental illnesses first occur before age 24; the average age of onset is 18 to 24, when young people are often attending college (Kessler, Chiu, Demler, & Walters, 2005). Retention of online students is also a priority concern for administrators of distance education programs and 5% of students who fail to complete degree programs drop out due to mental health problems (Kessler, 1995). In college students who have a diagnosed mental illness, 85% never complete a degree (Kessler, 1995). The 5.6 million students participating in online education have lower incomes, and are of a minority race, at rates much higher than that of on-campus classroom students (Schaffer, 2011) which puts them at greater risk for mental health issues (World Health Organization (WHO), 2012). In a traditional classroom setting faculty have the ability to visually observe students, and interact face to face. This direct, experiential contact with students enables faculty to perceive mental health warning signs such as deterioration in hygiene, tardiness and absences, mood changes, bizarre behaviors, and altered levels of attention. In online educational settings the direct sensory contact with students is missing and the student is often at a distant geographic location. Thus, online educators need strategies for identifying mental health problems in their students, resources available to offer the distance student, and institutional policies addressing mental health and student performance. This article focuses on these topics.


Barr, B. Identifying and Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Online Students in Higher Education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(2),. Retrieved November 30, 2021 from .

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