Mental wellness is foundational to effective learning

Rita Sahu | Open Learning

In the US, approximately 1 in 5 adolescents aged 13–18 (~20%) experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lifetime. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13% (NIH 2015). Half of chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and three-quarters by age 24 (Kessler, R.C., et al. 2005). Over one-third (37%) of students with a mental health condition aged 14–21 and older who are served by special education drop out, the highest dropout rate of any disability group (US Dept. of Ed 2014).

It can be challenging for educators to identify and understand the experiences of children, adolescents, and adults with mental illnesses such as autism, depression, and anxiety, among others. Providing educators with tools that can increase awareness and improve training surrounding mental illness is key, in order to support the social, emotional, and academic development of those affected by it. The consequences of failing to accurately diagnose children and adolescents with mental illness can result in years of untreated symptoms, prolonged distress, dysfunction in school, a disruption of the typical developmental trajectory, and an increased risk of completed suicide. Moreover, the pandemic has brought about a heightened and prolonged period of stress which has impacted the ability of vulnerable learners to receive and process learning content.

The Mental Wellness Initiative (MWI) is a newly launched initiative within MIT’s Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), a part of MIT Open Learning. MWI’s goal is to expand the scope and collaborate across research projects that focus on debilitating mental health conditions that impact and are impacted by learning. It will explore a series of questions around identifying, detecting, and acting on the cognitive and neural correlates of conditions such as but not limited to autism, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s. While these broad categories of conditions differently impact individuals across their lifespan - autism can begin very early on in life, anxiety and depression can emerge during childhood or young adulthood, Alzheimer’s can happen much later in life - the initiative hypotheses some common elements that will benefit from a collective study.

MWI was launched on January 25th, 2021 via a public discussion on mindfulness and its importance to learning science. The discussion drew a large number of attendees and continues to be asked about, proving that it is a matter of concern and needs our collective attention and guidance. During summer 2021, MWI is planning to host a professional development workshop on mindfulness for K-12 teachers. The one-day remote “research to practice” session will outline mental well-being challenges, share research supporting the effectiveness of mindfulness to help address these challenges, and give teachers preliminary training on how to use mindfulness for themselves and their students.

At the heart of MWI is a compassionate team of staff members and world renowned faculty including Prof. Sanjay Sarma (Vice President, MIT Open Learning), Prof. John Gabrieli (MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences), Prof. Pawan Sinha (MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences), and Dr. Brian Subirana (Director, MIT AutoID Lab). Each in their own way is keen on applying MIT-style science and engineering to advance our understanding of conditions and make progress towards developing more targeted diagnostic assessments and interventions across diverse populations. Alongside, MIT staff members such as Jeff Dieffenbach (Associate Director, MITili) and Steve Nelson (Program Manager, MITili) have moved MWI from conception to reality with remarkable focus.

Finally, on a personal note, I was motivated to pitch this project due to two primary factors - my proximity to an academic environment as an alum and staffer, and my observations of the impact of mental health issues (resulting from loneliness) as the founder of a startup. I am interested in all things that can and are impacting the world of learning. Increasingly, students are openly sharing their vulnerability to mental health conditions - the more we can think through these issues collectively, the sooner we can help mitigate them.


rita headshot Rita Sahu is the Acting Program Director for the Mental Wellness Initiative (an Initiative at MIT launched by MIT Open Learning).