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Can Learning Help with Mental Health Conditions?

This article was written by Becca Judd, an editor here at BestCerts. It coincides with mental health awareness week 2016.


I was never a big fan of learning while I was at school.

I was joint-top of the class in some subjects, and in those classes I got a little too used to the idea that I didn’t need to work for my academic success. I struggled and felt stupid in other classes, and that ego bruising stopped young, prideful me from applying myself to become better at those subjects.

More than anything, though, I didn’t have a broad passion for learning. Sure, I really enjoyed some topics. But if you’d asked me if I liked learning over the whole course of my 15+ years of being at school, I’d have rolled my eyes and mumbled something something waste of time something homework something something want to play more Dungeon Keeper/Doom/Realms of the Haunting.

In my teenage years I went through a difficult patch mentally. 

In my teenage years I went through a difficult patch mentally. Well, really, it started then and continues to this day. But back then I had no context for or understanding of what was going on. I actually thought I was mad. It was terrifying (it still is, sometimes; perhaps you can relate). Later, in my twenties, I learned about the concept of anxiety and could see that it applies to me, and I was also officially diagnosed with real, proper OCD (yes, I know, it’s a Cracked.com article. Surprisingly, it gives an okay starter overview of what it’s like to live with proper OCD, not the “oh I need to line things up lolz” mockery that goes round).

I have struggled with both anxiety and OCD on a daily basis since 

I have struggled with both anxiety and OCD on a daily basis since then; I’ve also wondered if I sometimes suffer from some depression, though I don’t say I properly have it out of respect for people who really do have Depression. The conditions I have come and go in waves, so sometimes I find they’re less intense for weeks or months and then I’ll go through hell with them for weeks or months, and then back again to plain sailing for a bit if I’m lucky.

I have fought to improve my mental health in the last decade, and I have made great strides with the aid of therapists, self help books, and self-reflection and self-honesty.

So why am I telling you all this, and why are you here reading it on a site about online learning?

In the past couple of years, I’ve added another aspect to my mental fortitude: I started taking MOOCs. 

In the past couple of years, I’ve added another aspect to my mental fortitude: I started taking MOOCs. It’s been gradual, and it started by pure, random coincidence.

In the summer of 2014, Facebook showed me an advert for this site called “Coursera.” I was bored so I clicked on the link (Newsflash: Facebook in Being Useful For Once Shocker). I browsed Coursera’s catalog of courses and came across one called Learning How to Learn.

"Learning How to Learn"

Learning How To Learn

I had some spare time, so I took the course and I loved it. It opened up a whole new way of thinking for me, including a whole new way of thinking about some of my own habits — things I’d previously thought were bad, or which I thought made me a “bad” or lazy person. It gave me an alternative viewpoint on those aspects of myself, and it gave me a whole range of new knowledge on how to study and why. It was eye- and mind-opening.

I had some spare time, so I took the course[Learning How To Learn] and I loved it. It gave me an alternative viewpoint on those aspects of myself, and it gave me a whole range of new knowledge on how to study and why. It was eye- and mind-opening. 

Then I became very busy, and my MOOC-taking took a siesta. I thought it was great that there were so many courses online, but I didn’t feel a need to look them up and take them for their own sake. I did start edX’s Wine 101 because I had recently got into wine as a hobby, but I picked up a nasty multi-week shoulder/neck injury that meant I couldn’t use the computer or look at a small screen for any length of time. I couldn’t watch the lectures and the MOOC finished before I could return to it. I was a little sad from the perspective of my new adventures into enjoying wine, but I moved on quickly.

Last summer, I thought to look for a MOOC that would benefit me professionally. 

And then, last summer, I thought to look for a MOOC that would benefit me professionally. I did so, found one, and took it. This MOOC didn’t grab me as much as Learning How to Learn had done, but it served a purpose in sharpening my professional skills and I recognized it as being valuable to me for that reason. Like the Wine 101 course, though, I wasn’t doing it through a love of learning.

Though I was finding joy in fits and starts in another “course” I was taking and which I had, unusually for me, requested as a present from family during the previous Christmas. This course wasn’t online but was a DVD couse from The Great Courses. I found the lectures very interesting. I started to actively try to start a habit of watching a lecture over my morning coffee … which worked when I could get past some sort of mental start-up resistance I had to actually loading the DVD and starting a lecture.

I found this mental resistance odd but didn’t “poke” it too much. Yet again, though, I found that I asked for DVD courses as presents last Christmas; this time I asked for two courses. I didn’t really think about it, but my engagement with learning was going steadily if slowly up — I still wasn’t doing it for a love of learning, but there was a new curiosity in me. By this point, I was convinced that one of the main reasons I didn’t take more MOOCs was because I didn’t have time.

Then along came January of this year. I was mentally and physically exhausted from a tiring Christmas and a very busy 2015. I took January mostly off work (yay for self employment) and started thinking about happiness, and about what happiness actually is.

It seemed like I would never be one of those people for whom learning is a passion. 

I realized I didn’t know, and I realized I could be happier. I’d also heard from multiple sources that learning is good for you, and that it can improve your mental health. Yet, despite my forrays into MOOCs and DVDs, I was still like someone on the outside, wistfully looking in. It seemed like I would never be one of those people for whom learning is a passion. It did occur to me, though, that perhaps I just needed to try ingraining learning into my life and my habits using routine and discipline; maybe a love of it would come afterwards.

With sites like Habit Forge trying to help us all start and keep new habits, why not give it a try? I might not have much time, but perhaps if I tried it and enjoyed it then I would suddenly find I had more time for learning after all. And, really, what did I have to lose? If I didn’t manage to ingrain that habit, at least I’d tried, and could always try again or try other things.

I wanted to be happier, and I also wanted to try to instill a habit of learning within myself for my mental health. 

I wanted to be happier, and I also wanted to try to instill a habit of learning within myself for my mental health. And I was at least now curious about learning, thanks to my experiments with other courses for the various reasons I’d taken them so far.

So I launched myself further into the waters of learning. I bought several well-reviewed self help books on relevant topics, and I took the plunge and signed up for the A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment MOOC.

A Life Of Happiness and Fulfillment

A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment

Then a funny thing happened.

As soon as that one had finished, I felt like I needed another MOOC.

People talk about being hooked, about being a lifelong learner, and about having a passion for learning. I’d never got it, previously. Now I do.

It’s now May 2016. I’ve read several self-help books (which I also view as methods of learning), and I’ve taken two more MOOCs so far this year. And I want to take more.

I’m actually looking ahead at the rest of the year and planning when I’m going to take which MOOC.

Learning feels like a hobby, not a chore, although do I still get some of that mental start-up resistance I mentioned earlier. I think my subconscious views “courses” as “schoolwork,” or something similar with negative connotations. Good news, though: some of the things I’ve learned in the MOOCs I’ve taken help me to overcome that resistance.

Sometimes I’m actually choosing to take MOOCs — or to browse for a new MOOC, even — instead of doing other hobbies.

So, you may still be asking: why am I telling you all this?

MOOCs are helping me grow as a person. They’re teaching me about myself, and they’re also teaching me about the universe and anything and everything in it — whatever I choose to learn about. A few weeks ago I finished a MOOC that took me on a 13.8 billion year journey. It gave me a whole new perspective.

The courses I’m taking, and my newfound thirst for and appreciation of knowledge, are helping me to feel mentally more whole. 

It’s May 2016. I set out this year to learn how to be happier. I believe I have made a lot of progress in a few short months. Yes, the MOOC on happiness did help, I think; so did the self-help books. But another driving factor for that happiness is a wider sense of fulfillment in my life, and learning is one of the biggest areas from which that sense is stemming. The courses I’m taking, and my newfound thirst for and appreciation of knowledge, are helping me to feel mentally more whole.

Your mileage may vary, but my guess is that if learning can do this for me then it might help other people as well.

Why not give it a try?

There are so many courses out there. You’ll find something — several somethings, most likely — to try. And it’s low-risk: you can always drop out, or try again later, or try a whole different topic if the first one doesn’t feel right for you at the moment.

Your mind might be dinged up and battered from years of mental struggles, or your brain might have various mis-wirings or chemical imbalances, but give your mind a dust-off and open the door to online learning. See if it does for you what it does for me.

Good luck and, as we say in Learning How to Learn, happy learning!

 

International OCD Foundation | OCD UK | friendly community of OCD sufferers

Active Minds | Anxiety and Depression Association of America | iFred (Shine a Light on Depression)

International list of support hotlines

Get started in online learning: Coursera | edX | Canvas | Udacity | Browse courses by clicking here then on “Meet your next course”