The Incompatibility of Online School and Mental Illness

Notebook and pen on a table with a mug of tea.

PHOTO BY MOLLY SIMPSON / SPUTNIK PHOTOGRAPHY

As we trek on towards the halfway mark of our fall 2021 semester, I can’t help but think about how at this time last year, we were all just beginning to realize how terrible online school was really going to be. If you did not experience this realization, I am happy for you. But many of us who struggle with mental illness were hit extremely hard and continued to be sucker-punched by school non-stop for the rest of the online academic year. 

 

While I can only offer the opinion that online school is horribly incompatible with any form of mental illness through the lens of my own experience, I can reasonably assume that I am not the only person who experienced such difficulty when all of our classes were moved online.

 

I have spent my whole life trying to figure out how to be somewhat functional in the classroom despite my issues, just for any progress I had made to be entirely upended by a sudden and absolute change of circumstances. As if regular in-person schooling wasn’t already difficult enough, it was more than just our classes that got moved to an online medium. Every aspect of the academic experience was completely altered because of COVID. 

 

I was lucky enough to spend almost all of my first year of university attending in-person classes. The guarantee of daily socialization, an explicitly defined routine, and being forced by a strong sense of obligation to get out of bed & go about my day were three of the most important factors that contributed to any sense of wellbeing I had throughout my first year at Laurier. Strip all of that away and I was left fighting for my life when we made the switch to online school.

 

Personally, I struggle with anxiety and bouts of depression, but it is my attention deficit disorder that has made online school nearly impossible to get through. One huge issue with ADD is that it vastly impacts one’s ability to self-regulate. Deadlines might induce extreme anxiety and literally give me nightmares, but without the crushing pressure of a hard deadline fast approaching, people like me would never get anything done – ever. 

 

I do not possess the intrinsic motivation to do things that I know are good for me. This inability to act in the present for the benefit of your future self is extremely common among those of us with mental illness. School has always been beyond difficult for me for that reason. Thus, I rely on soul-shattering external pressures to outweigh my inability to connect present pain to future gain.

 

However, like many of us, doing school online destroyed my capacity to engage with what was going on in the classroom. This disconnect was critically detrimental to both my productivity levels and my sense of purpose in school. Those external pressures that extended beyond some arbitrary deadline no longer existed, and I began getting crushed under the weight of a hundred due dates. During the times of in-person classes, just knowing that if I was unable to finish an assignment I would have to face my professor the next day was enough pressure to keep me somewhat on top of my readings, assignments and studying. 

 

Another fun symptom of ADD is the extreme difficulty of remembering and managing appointments and deadlines. While professors certainly never held our hands and made sure to remind us of every single upcoming due date, these reminders occurred much more naturally and frequently in the in-person classroom compared to the online space. 

 

I haven’t even touched upon how crucial the social aspect of academic life is. Daily interaction with people outside of those in one’s household is a lifeline for so many of us. It’s a lifeline none of us had this time last year and still have not gotten back. And for those of us already sinking, the lack of social interaction made it even more impossible to stay afloat. 

 

Add all these issues together plus three consecutive academic terms in a row, and I simply could not manage any sense of functionality in an online environment. 

 

“I just cannot endure another semester like this,” I remember saying to my parents at the end of the fall term in 2020 (the first semester spent entirely online). A few weeks later, the winter term of 2021 began, and I had to do it all over again. At the end of that second online semester, it came to the point where I finished one of my exams and was certain there was no way I could have possibly passed. 

 

In my program, failing even one class means you are not able to progress further. Due to the program’s rigid schedule, your only choices are to either drop out entirely or wait a year to retake the class. After those two horrible semesters of online classes, I was genuinely overcome with relief when I thought I had failed out of school. As it turns out, I managed to pass the class by some arbitrary stroke of luck, which meant it was time to face a third semester in a row. This was a very depressing realization for me.

 

It is not as though universities had a choice in whether or not to move school online in the era of COVID. So, what is the solution?

 

First of all, universities have a lot of room to be more understanding of just how brutal this educational model truly is. At least as far as my program goes, minimum GPA requirements were not adjusted nor were exemptions to progression requirements made despite the extreme circumstances students were faced with (which, by the way, they did not sign up for when they decided to pay thousands of dollars to attend university). A friend of mine was put on academic probation for having a 6.99 overall GPA instead of the minimum 7.0 requirement. This seems ridiculous under normal circumstances, not to mention the fact he also struggles immensely with ADHD and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

 

Furthermore, while I definitely needed to go to therapy prior to September 2020, that first Fall semester online was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I could not have made it through that semester or the two consecutive semesters to follow without weekly appointments with my therapist. And I barely made it through anyways. 

 

Struggling mentally/emotionally while at university is an inevitable occurrence as old as the institution of post-secondary itself. My father (who does not struggle with mental illness at all) still has nightmares about his university accounting class from 30 years ago. The façade of mental resilience in the face of insurmountable pressures is an extremely overrated virtue. Everyone struggles.

 

Here’s the big problem though: while I was fortunate enough to have access to therapeutic resources, many are not so lucky. Cognitive therapy is extremely expensive, but that is obviously not the university’s fault. What Laurier could do better, however, is respond to the lack of assistance to make these resources more accessible. Given the rising rates of severe and chronic mental issues among our generation, it should be a primary priority for Laurier and every other university to ensure that great strides are being made towards bettering students’ health.

 

University is not for everyone, but given the number of students who struggle with mental illness, online university is for almost nobody at all. I understand that every cohort of students faces its own unique challenges, but the pandemic raised a series of unprecedented circumstances that negatively impacted every student and essentially deserted those students who already struggled with chronic mental illnesses. 

 

The best thing that Laurier and other universities can do for its students is make high-quality therapy and other treatments financially feasible for anyone who needs it. 

 

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