A distance-learning course on self-care that has helped Yale graduate students track improvements to their nutrition, physical activity, and mental health is now available for free to the public.
The online course, designed by Marney White, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Yale School of Medicine, was recently released by the online learning platform Coursera. The curriculum is spread over eight weeks and includes videos, readings, and end-of-unit quizzes.
Although unintentionally timed, the release of the course coincides with the onset of the worldwide COVID-19 public health crisis. Health experts have offered numerous ways for the public to cope with the anxiety of COVID-19, from maintaining daily routines to getting more exercise.
White’s online course, while not specifically aimed at COVID-19 anxiety, has been effective in helping students reduce stress, anxiety, and depression by making minor modifications to their behavior.
For example, students reported feeling better physically and mentally when they took simple steps like eating breakfast, added a serving of fresh vegetables to their dinner, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Their mental health benefited when they painted for fun or wrote in a journal, and their social supports were strengthened when they called or wrote letters to old friends or got together with people.
The course teaches best practices for health psychology, something everyone can use as people’s anxiety levels increase in these uncertain times, said White, Associate Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology (Chronic Diseases) and Psychiatry at Yale.
“It’s really equipping people to access and understand the scientific knowledge base surrounding nutrition and physical activity and also giving them a gateway to incorporate it into their lives,” she said. “They’re experiencing the effects of their physical health improving, along with improvements in mental health.”
White began teaching the course, known colloquially as the Self Care Class, years ago at Yale School of Public Health. While teaching about the science of health behavior change, she encouraged students to “learn experientially” while make changes to their own health behaviors. As part of the curriculum, students tested new healthy activities in four domains: nutrition, physical activity, mental health wellness, and social supports. If the students kept up the activities for the rest of the semester White gave them extra credit toward their final grade.
“They chose their own goals, and the goals had to be small and measurable and something they could do every day,” White said.
Student participants are now demonstrating mental health improvements which White attributes to their participation in the health activities. “We’re finding that compared to control students (who are in the same graduate program), students enrolled in the course report improvements in depression, anxiety, and stress, and these effects persist three months following the completion of the class,” White said. “I’m really excited that the mental health effects were so powerful, especially since this was all done with a distance-learning format.”
Now that the curriculum is available to the public, White said people of all ages can apply practices from clinical and health psychology to their own lives. The course is appropriate for anyone interested in health care and public health as well as people who want to learn to apply the science of behavior change to improve their personal wellbeing.