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3 Ways Online Classes Can be Helpful for Students With Mental Illness

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Here we are, almost a month into quarantine for some of us, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), a new-to humans virus that causes respiratory infection and can lead to serious or fatal health complications. Unfortunately, for most college students taking in-person lectures and labs, their classes have been moved online — something they definitely did not sign up for. Many are upset, and understandably so.

If you spend any amount of time on social media, you probably see the frustration as these students rage over the quality of the classes that were never meant to be online. Most of the posts from these young college students mention the poor quality of the streams, or the increase in coursework. The professors were not prepared to teach online during a pandemic, and we can’t fault them for that. We also can’t fault these students for their feelings toward the situation. These are uncertain times. We never saw this coming.

I spoke with a college student at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and asked her why she chooses to take her college courses in person versus online. “Being in person keeps me on track and being on campus helps me build stronger relationships with my professors because I can see them face to face. If I have questions, it can be talked through more quickly and conveniently in person, rather than having to wait for a response from an email.”

Another college student who attends Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, said, “I feel more engaged in discussions when I am physically listening to people converse. I also think that the professors engage more in on campus classes than online classes. I learn better with hands-on teaching methods.”

Certainly the consensus seems focus and engagement are two reasons students choose to take in-person courses. Many students who were stripped of this stability and routine now find themselves questioning how they will succeed in an online environment.

There is a small community, however, that seems to be thriving in online programs — some people of the mental illness community. Online classes and programs can open up a whole new way to be educated when it comes to individuals who are severely debilitated by their mental health. An online program at Florida International University made graduation with two bachelor’s degrees attainable for me — someone on the schizophrenia spectrum, a spectrum of psychotic disorders characterized by hallucinations, disorganized speech/behavior, delusions and/or mood symptoms.

If you’re someone who struggles with a mental illness but has aspirations of higher education, here are some things I learned about attending college online with a mental illness.

1. Online classes allowed me a flexible schedule for psychiatrist and therapy appointments.

Many of us know how hard it is to get that first psychiatric appointment. Online classes freed up my schedule enough that I was always able to take last-minute canceling appointments with new doctors. I never had that conversation that started with, “Let me check my schedule.” Once I got in with that new doctor or therapist, I was able to see them during normal class hours instead of having to juggle a circus of classes and appointments.

2. Online classes allowed me to be hospitalized without an attendance penalty.

If you have a severe mental health condition, it’s possible you might wind up being hospitalized at some point in your life. If this happens while you’re doing an online program, there is no need to worry about being penalized for not showing up to class. Some professors these days only allow one absence before they start dropping your grade. With that, comes the work that needs to be made up. I’ve even heard of some hospitals allowing patients to complete online assignments during inpatient if they feel up to it.

3. Online classes allowed me the isolation I needed when being in the public was too much.

As someone with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental illness characterized by hallucinations, delusions and symptoms of a mood disorder, I struggle with extreme paranoia some days. Having to sit in a room full of people for hours at a time hinders my focus and engagement in the classroom. When I took in-person classes, 90% of the time I didn’t go. And when I did go, my head was filled with voices and thoughts of anything but intellectual material. Being able to communicate with my peers and professors through a screen was beneficial for me because it removed the element that was contributing to my  paranoia.

I was able to finish a bulk of my college education online during a time where relapses were frequent. This goes to show how flexible online courses can be and how much of a difference they can make for someone who lives with a mental illness. While I believe COVID-19 has really disrupted the lives of many college students due to online learning, we should not ignore the fact distance learning can be so supportive for some people of the mental health community. My hope at the end of this pandemic is we are able to find many students who felt online classes may have benefited their mental health.

Struggling with your mental health due to COVID-19? Check out the following articles from our community:

Christin Hume

Originally published: April 15, 2020
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