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Finding help on Coursera

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2022 Issue 169 Rising Up
by Ken Byron


Professor Marney White’s Coursera class on establishing healthy patterns of behavior helps students build emotional resiliency and improved mental health.

A Yale faculty member’s Coursera class teaches people self-care strategies that help them cope with stress while showing how therapists and other mental health professionals can provide services remotely.

Health Behavior Change: From Evidence to Action went live on Coursera in March 2020; to date nearly 20,000 people have taken it. Marney A. White, PhD, MS ‘09, a social and behavioral sciences professor at Yale School of Public Health, developed the class. White based the course on one she teaches to Yale students.

White, whose specialty is treating binge eating and weight disorders, said she introduced the public health class in 2016 because she was concerned that students were suffering from preventable stress-induced mental health problems. The course was a success, and she decided to make it available to the general public. The idea is to give people tools to prevent depression and anxiety before these emotions trigger a crisis.

Measuring success

To gauge the success of the class, White and her colleagues polled 216 students about their goals and whether the goals had been met. A paper they published in February 2021 in the American Journal of Health Education said that students reported feeling less depressed, anxious, and stressed.

“Our data showed that students experienced significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress after taking the class,” White said. “They also experienced increased self-efficacy, which is the belief in our ability to overcome challenges and meet personal goals. It is perhaps through this increase in self-efficacy that the students enjoyed improvements in mental health.” White said the focus on such simple things as getting exercise and eating well, and helping students overcome obstacles can alleviate mental health problems.

Ashley Roehrig, MPH ’21, took the class with White at the School of Public Health and then helped her teach the Coursera class. Roehrig's goals included drinking more water each day; walking more; and sending letters to people expressing her gratitude for things they had done to help her. “We all know what we should be doing, what healthy behavior is. But we don’t do it. This [course] gave you strategies and techniques to meet your goals,” Roehrig said.

In-person counseling is the traditional way for mental health practitioners to reach people. But White said the success of the Coursera class shows that delivering those services online is a viable option. Helping people with online tools was necessary when the class started on Coursera because pandemic-related restrictions meant traditional therapy was not possible. White said the class's success shows that mental health practitioners like herself can extend their reach by going online.

“I am a huge fan of this kind of delivery. It expands access for people who do not have time. There is so much content that can be delivered this way,” said Amy Canfield, a student in the MPH program who works in the Office of Management and Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, focusing on health care policy.

Canfield took the class when she started her program at the School of Public Health in the summer of 2021 and recommended the Coursera course to a coworker. “This class will help people make small, impactful changes that will improve their overall health and well-being but also help you reflect on other people’s health and their ability to make changes,” Canfield said.

Online mental health services are not appropriate for everyone or for every situation, however. For example, White said it would not be suitable for helping someone struggling with an eating disorder, who would need an inpatient or intensive outpatient program. For otherwise healthy people with busy, stressful lives—like students in competitive and intense graduate programs—online tools like the Coursera class can reduce the psychological toll taken by isolation, poor eating habits, and other self-destructive behaviors.

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