Editorial: The Mental Health of Distance Learners

Although distance learners reduce their risks of contracting the coronavirus, they may face many challenges within regards to their mental health.  

By Aiden Wacksman

Many distance learners face unique challenges during this time. Stress, anxiety, and fear are some of the feelings these students experience. A decrease in motivation and an increase of distractions may also inhibit distance learners from reaching their academic potential.  

Oak Hall Upper School (US) Counselor Darcy Paré explained that while some students may experience certain difficulties, it is not an overwhelming majority. “There are numerous factors that play into an individual’s mental health and their perceived experiences of distance learning,” she said. While other students may struggle, some are doing particularly well given the current circumstances. 

“It should be acknowledged that stress is a normal part of life,” Paré explained. While overwhelming amounts of stress are unhealthy for students, a little bit of stress is not a bad thing and may sometimes push students to their academic heights. For those trying to overcome mental health related obstacles, Paré recommended the best thing to do is to reach out for help. She also emphasized the importance of socialization, particularly for distance learners. “Isolation, boredom, and decreased socialization can easily impact our mental health,” Paré stated.  

Parents can assist their children by listening and “reflecting-back” what they said, according to Paré. She cautioned parents when trying to give advice to their children, as it could result in a feeling of invalidation. “I would specifically ask if that individual wants advice before it is provided,” she suggested. In other words, the best thing a parent can do is to create a safe environment for their child to express their feelings.

It is important for students to evaluate their circumstances in a positive manner. The first step toward acceptance is to understand that things won’t always go in the right direction, and the “road may get bumpy,” as the old saying goes. It is harder to find positive things and easier to find the negative things that are happening in our lives. It is important to understand, however, that these “negatives” are only temporary.  “The practice of being grateful and reframing negativity is a skill that can take time to develop,” Paré said. Students should try to think of positive moments of their day, rather than dwelling on negative ones.  “Remember to continue self-care and balance, so continue to look for ways to have fun and engage,” she continued. 

It’s okay to not always feel positive. After all, we are human and we experience a wide range of emotions.

Darcy Paré, Oak Hall Upper School Counselor

While the recommended limit for daily screen time according to the American Heart Association is two hours a day, online students can accumulate five or more hours of screen time. This can lead to eye-strain, headaches, and exhaustion.  

According to Gainesville psychologist Kathryn Large, increased screen time can also lead to increased risks of anxiety and depression. Students between the ages of 14 and 17, however, are the ones most affected by increased daily screen time. “Being a part of things in our community, like churches, clubs, [etc.] does a lot of really important things for our mental health,” she explained. Now that the coronavirus has stopped activities like these in their tracks, some students have lost the ability to express themselves.  

Paré found that some students feel better after venting. Hence, she tries to provide an environment that allows students to share their thoughts. “One of the beauties of counseling is that it is personalized and specific for the person I am talking to,” she explained. 

Large came up with a list of activities/ideas for students to maintain their mental health: 

  • Go outside and exercise! Run, walk, swim, ride a bike or scooter, rollerblade. Walk a trail or play at a park. Shoot baskets or kick a soccer ball in your backyard. Walk or play fetch with your dog. It doesn’t have to feel like a workout to be good for you. 
  •  Find a hobby that you like that is safe to do right now like cooking, knitting or crocheting, reading, or playing board games with your family.  
  • Zoom, FaceTime or talk on the phone with friends after school (make sure to watch your screen time though…) 
  • Watch your screen time! Make sure you’re not spending all the time you’re not at school on your phone, watching tv or playing a video game. A little bit of screen time every day is okay (30 minutes or less) but because you’re already on the computer so long for school, you need to give your brain and your eyes a break! Ways to do that include eating meals “screen-free”, taking breaks to work out and exercise, and turning your phone off a little while before going to bed. 
  • Drink plenty of water and try to get at least eight hours of sleep each night.  

Although I am still dealing with my fair share of anxiety and stress, I feel good about how I have been able to handle it. By no means is it easy, but I realize that some obstacles/frustrations are unavoidable and out of my control. The current situation I am in is simply something I must accept, and I would much rather row my boat with the current rather than against it. The more I try to focus on the positive moments of my day, the more I feel relieved of stress and anxiety.

Having support from my family has also been very helpful. My parents are open to discussing my problems with me and being able to vent my pent-up frustrations provides a sense of relief. Distance learning is not a walk in the park, but I enjoy facing challenges every once in a while, as I believe the challenges mold me into a more prepared person. At the end of the day, as long as I gave it my all, that’s all that matters. 

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