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College, Depression and Online Learning: Is There a Link?

written by: Beth Taylor•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 12/6/2011

Can online learning really lead to signs of depression? Learn to spot the difference between clinical depression and situational depression -- and how to combat these conditions.

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    What Is Clinical Depression?

    Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that effects both the body and behavior. It is caused by chemical imbalances in the patient's body, and it is treatable.

    According to the University of California, Berkeley, University Health Services web page, there are three major forms of clinical depression:

    • Major Depression
    • Dysthymia
    • Bipolar Disorder

    All three forms prevent the sufferers from functioning in their daily lives. Episodes of depression completely disrupt the patient's sleep, ability to function, and ability to enjoy life. It disrupts the victims's appetite, makes concentration difficult and makes a person quick to anger. Some sufferers feel worthless and consider suicide.

    People who might have clinical depression must see their doctor immediately.

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    Situational Depression

    Situational depression is a normal reaction to the world around us. Not everything in life is going to be wonderful and make us happy.

    Situational depression can be caused by many different things in our lives, such as bad news, loss of friends or loved ones, stressful situations at work, feelings of isolation and loneliness, new medical diagnoses, and change and disruption in our normal routine. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of situational depression caused by lack of sunshine. People who live in northern climates are more likely to suffer from it.

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    Depression and Online Learning

    For all of the advantages and benefits of online learning, there are also obstacles that make it different from traditional classroom learning. Online learners lack the sense of community that comes with being in a room full of people. Online learners often lack the opportunity to strike up conversations about course material with other students or faculty "in the flesh."

    In traditional lecture hall classes, students are required to attend small discussion sessions, as well. Online learners are well-advised to seek out small class groups, join school chat rooms, and email professors when they have questions. Online learners who work with teachers who are responsive are less likely to feel isolated and ignored.

    Email communication does not take the place of personal, face-to-face interaction and conversation. Steven Silberman, writing for Wired Online, quotes other news sources as concluding that internet use decreases socialization and causes depression. While this is a hotly debated subject, the need for social interaction is just one important consideration that potential online students must take into account. A student with strong social and family ties outside of school may be a better candidate for online learning.

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    Combatting Situational Depression

    If online learners start to feel isolated, they must be diligent about emailing questions to their professors, and participating daily in discussions in class chat rooms. A sense of isolation can hold people back from completing their goals. Online learners need self-discipline and must be pro-active about communicating with other people at their school.

    According to Starr Roxanne Hiltz, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, online learners are well advised to seek out small class groups that are mentored by a faculty member. This provides the sense of community that people need.

    If you are beginning to feel this type of situational depression while taking your online classes, get the help you deserve to finish your degree. Be active and fight college depression!

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    University of California, Berkeley-University Health

    Silberman, Steven. Study Is A Bummer. Retrieved from Wired Online at

    Starr Roxanne Hiltz. Collaborative Learning in Asynchronous Learning Networks: Building Learning Communities. New Jersey Institute of Technology. November 1998. Retrieved from

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