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The consequences of online learning: how college students are coping after a virtual reality

When UC Santa Barbara began to cancel in-person classes at the end of its winter quarter in 2020, second-year student Luke Fields first felt a sense of relief over the thought of taking finals from the comforts of his dorm-room bed.

However, when the university announced its spring quarter would be conducted remotely due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Fields and many other students were forced to pack all of their belongings and return home. 

Unaware of how long he would have to continue his studies online while the world tried to navigate the pandemic, Fields took his time to adjust, attempting to view remote learning as a new and exciting experience. As someone who radiates positive energy with a bright smile and unwavering optimism, Fields put his all into making the most of his new reality.

Unfortunately, as the next three quarters were conducted online, any initial excitement disappeared, replaced with stress and anxiety. “When your classroom becomes your bedroom, and your bedroom becomes a classroom, it’s hard to have your life not be overtaken by school and all the stresses that come with it,” Fields explained.

This article discusses how, due to online school and its various stressors, college students across the country have experienced a severe decline in their mental health and have been attempting to find ways to cope after the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to in-person instruction. 

Fields is far from the only college student suffering from increased mental health problems, as most private and public universities were forced to move all classes and other university activities online until the end of 2021. 


According to a survey conducted by student housing developer Core Spaces, online school has resulted in various psychological changes among students. While 76% of students experienced a difference in their sleep schedule, 75% reported feeling more anxious or stressed. 

In addition, 55.5% of college students feel more depressed or worried, and 12% have seen a professional for mental health. 

The survey, featuring data from 2,490 students across 12 cities, indicates that students across the country faced severe consequences regarding their mental well-being due to remote learning. Furthermore, it suggests that online learning has affected different facets of each student’s mental health, with many experiencing declines in different areas than that of their peers. 

Though students have seen their mental health deteriorate in different ways, Fields feels that two main factors caused by online school are to blame: a lack of social interaction and a loss of university resources. 


“Being a student is a full-time job, and if nothing is exciting or fun about it, and there is no way to relax after classes end, then it’s hard to enjoy life,” Fields said, elaborating on why the lack of socialization is so crucial to maintaining one’s mental health.

Along with the loss of social interaction, students could not access facilities such as the library and gym while campuses remained closed. Furthermore, university resources were severely limited, including Professor and TA office hours and counseling services.

Despite many universities’ mental health services remaining open during the pandemic through their website and Zoom, the remote format stunted their effectiveness and ability to help students cope with mental health issues caused by online learning. 

Fields explained that the biggest problem, both while UC Santa Barbara was remote and still today, with the online counseling services at UC Santa Barbara’s Counseling and Psychological Services is that they are “wildly understaffed,” leading to far longer waiting times and the inability for staff members to connect with students on a more personal level.


However, he is far from alone in his internal battle due to online learning. “Many students using our services at this time have an increased amount of distress than in prior years and need to be seen for a longer period. There have been relapses with students with mental health issues, including depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts,” said Janet Osimo, Assistant Clinical Director and Psychologist at UCSB’s Counseling and Psychological Services. 

According to Dr. Osimo, multiple factors linked directly to online learning, such as the “sense of isolation and loss, in general, relating to milestones - graduations, and starting the college experience on campus,” have led to this increase in mental health problems among college students. 

Though online learning’s effect on the mental health of college students remains a prominent issue, these same students are not without hope, as many of them have discovered compelling and unique coping mechanisms to combat feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. 

For some students, coping means focusing on activities that distract from feelings of distress. “I honestly just try to keep myself busy throughout the day with homework and talking to the people that make me happy, like friends and family,” third-year student Jackson Friedman revealed.

In comparison, many others have found that using creative outlets to express themselves has been extremely helpful. “Drawing has always been my escape from reality, and I’ve found that I lean on it more than ever now as I try to get over whatever I’m anxious about at that moment,” said Abby Wolfe, a second-year Environmental Sciences major, revealed.

“I feel like music has been one of the most helpful tools for me when I’m having a bad day. I make a lot of playlists with different vibes so that I always have one that I know will help get me out of a negative headspace,” Fields said, explaining how music has served as his creative outlet and coping mechanism.

Along with these tools, many other activities serve as effective coping mechanisms, including cooking and being outdoors. Even forms of exercise such as yoga have psychological benefits proven from a medical standpoint. According to the American Psychological Association, “Several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress, and relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia.”

On the professional side, some universities’ mental health services, such as UC Santa Barbara’s, are also adapting to better help students from a remote setting. “We’ve made changes such as transitioning group counseling to an online format, recording webinars, presenting workshops, and shifting our Mental Health Peer Program Online. We also had to address training, accessibility, and technology issues with our staff to ensure they had the skills needed to deliver services remotely,” Osimo explained. 

Despite his ongoing mental health battle, Fields and many other college students have remained hopeful for the future since UC Santa Barbara and most universities around the country have reopened and begun in-person classes again. 

Finally, remaining true to his optimistic nature, Fields explained that the best part about coming back to UC Santa Barbara was being able to return to a place where he is “eager to wake up and learn new things” and, most importantly, “having a sense of pride, energy, and excitement about being a gaucho again.”

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