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Get help managing mental health as an online student

Two people sit near each other on a blue couch, talking and laughing together as one person colors a picture of a panda on a relaxing coloring therapy app. The app is one of several mental wellness and mindfulness apps featured in OSU Counseling and Psychological Services' "resilience toolbox."

Oregon State University Counseling and Psychological Services offers an online “resilience toolbox” with screening tools, self-help modules and mental wellness and mindfulness apps. Above, a student uses a relaxing art therapy app from the toolbox.

By Julie Cooper
Feb. 15, 2019

Today’s students know that the benefits of earning a degree – including increased job opportunities, higher earnings over their lifetime and more robust professional networks – are not to be passed up.

OSU students report increasing hardship

In a 2016 student survey at Oregon State, 25 percent of respondents shared that they experienced moderate to severe anxiety and 32 percent reported varying levels of depression.

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They also know that the path to a degree can be complicated. Many students who choose to earn their Oregon State degree online do so because they face a particularly demanding school-work-life balance – and the flexibility of online learning better fits their needs.

In the 2017-18 academic year, the average age of Ecampus students was 31 years old, and a majority of them were working adults and parents returning to school many years after first starting their degree. Additionally, about 44 percent self-identified as first-generation college students.

The culmination of a student’s identities, responsibilities and experiences can create a sense of pressure that weighs on their mental health and may impact their academic success.

Knowing where to go for support is essential for a student’s holistic wellness, and without a physical campus location to visit, Oregon State’s online learners needed a clear-cut path to important resources for stress management. Last spring, Ecampus faculty and staff collaborated with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Student Care Team to lay the groundwork by creating a new webpage for Ecampus students on the CAPS website.

Below are three tips to prioritize wellness and find support while earning your degree from a distance.

Tip 1: Know your resources before you need them

Preventive measures are key when it comes to mental health, just as with physical health. When long-term stressors build up into an immediate emergency, it can become more challenging to identify effective strategies to address the problem.

“Really pay attention to your stress and what’s going on academically, socially and personally, and try not to wait until the last minute to ask for help,” advises CAPS associate director of clinical services and licensed psychologist Marcey Bamba. “See what your institution can offer you; understand the access that you have to resources here at Oregon State.”

Ecampus fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences advisor Susie Dunham suggests reaching out to an academic advisor or Ecampus student success coach at the first signs of difficulty as academic hardship can often amplify struggles with mental health or self-worth.

“It’s a matter of helping students break down what’s going on and asking them questions to pull out the key things that are getting in the way of school,” Susie says.

In addition to connecting online students with resources and acting as a pillar of support, advisors can also help students to identify course drop and withdraw dates and other important information to save them time, money and emotional burden.

“Maybe they need to take a break or take a lighter load. Maybe they’re putting too much pressure on themselves. Sometimes they just need someone to give them permission to take a break and reassess,” she says.

Tip 2: Explore several options to discover what works for you

Ecampus students living in Oregon can access face-to-face or limited distance counseling services through CAPS. Ecampus students living outside of Oregon are unable to receive ongoing counseling through Oregon State due to state licensing laws, but any student in crisis can call CAPS and get help connecting with continuing mental health services in their own area.

Feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to start?

These Oregon State University resources can guide you toward a balanced life as an online student:

Counseling and Psychological Services

Ecampus student success coaching

Disability Access Services

Student Care Team

Student communities and organizations

However, Marcey reminds students that counseling is just one of countless valuable mental health care options. Try out the many online mental health resources available through Oregon State to find out what is helpful to address your unique needs.

“We have online self-help supports, wellness apps and TAO (Therapy Assistance Online) self-help. You can work on modules on your own,” Marcey says. “Students don’t need to pay the health fee to access any of our online services. We will do our best to help them where they’re at.”

CAPS also creates a weekly mindfulness newsletter to share tips, guided meditations and mindfulness challenges, and crowd-sourced knowledge and recommendations from the Oregon State community.

Tip 3: Connect with a community, no matter where you are

While many online students live with others and are involved in their local communities, a student’s support system benefits greatly from the presence of peers who share and can empathize with their university experience.

Engage with classmates and instructors live whenever possible, both in and out of the classroom.

Try using phone or video conferencing to complete group projects or check in with faculty; it can offer a personal face-to-face experience while saving the extra time it takes to communicate in writing.

You can also get involved with peers both on and off campus by joining a student community or organization and connecting with fellow classmates on the Ecampus Learning Community site in Canvas.

“My hope is that there is an opportunity for these students to have other ways to support each other, other than in the classroom setting. A sense of belonging is critical – research supports that,” says Marcey. “Create family, social supports around you in your area and virtually with your other classmates.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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