Instructional Design for Mental Health

Three men and one woman smiling at the top of a mountain at sunset.

When instructional designers or subject matter experts (SMEs) design a course, students’ mental health often unintentionally gets overlooked. Courses that overlook students’ mental health, even unintentionally, show a lack of empathy and understanding on our part. 

During the spring of 2021, I experienced significant burnout due to the load of my job as an Instructional Designer and the rigor of my PhD program. A few months later, the importance of creating accessible, universally designed learning experiences in ways that enhance students’ mental health and well-being was a main theme in my conversation with Tara McCoy and Dave Goodrich

Learning outcomes and program requirements will always guide course and program development. However, keeping students’ mental health and well-being in mind as we design courses allows us to provide empathy and understanding and, in turn, enhance their education journey. 

Defining Mental Health and Well-being Terms

Let’s begin by defining a few terms that will guide our conversation, specifically mental health, well-being, burnout, and trauma-informed. 

  • Mental Health: Includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how people think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how they handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.(, 2022)
  • Well-being: A sense of health and vitality that arises from a person’s thoughts, emotions, actions, and experiences. When people have well-being, they feel happy, healthy, socially connected, and purposeful most of the time. (The Berkeley Well-Being Institute, 2023)
  • Burnout: Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration or to cause to fail, wear out, or become exhausted especially from overwork or overuse (Merriam-Webster
  • Trauma-Informed: Creating an environment that provides safety, collaboration, trustworthiness, transparency, empowerment, peer support, humility, responsiveness, and choices  (Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care, 2015Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014)

The Problem 

Lister and McFarlane (2021) assert that students who struggle with mental health and burnout are statistically: 

  • Less likely to complete and/or pass a course or module
  • More likely to attain lower grades
  • More likely to drop out of school 
  • More likely to experience long term consequences in terms of future employment, earning potential, and overall health 

In addition, Lister and McFarlane note that online students are at higher risk for struggling with mental health and burnout because they do not have access to the same support or community as campus students. 

Students’ struggles with mental health, well-being, and burnout are caused by a combination of different factors in a student’s life including: genetic, biological, personality, and/or environmental (Mental Health…, 2020). These struggles often link back to aspects of higher education, including curriculum design (Lister & McFarlan, 2021). 

Higher Ed, Online Learning, and Mental Health

The rigor and design of a course can have a significant impact on students’ mental health and well-being, since the different components of a course influence workloads, due dates, stress, anxiety, and the health of both students and faculty (Mental Health…, 2020; Understanding Why…, n.d.). In her post discussing Trauma-Informed Instructional Design, Brown (2022) reflects on Dunning-Kruger’s Valley of Despair, observing that frustration is not the only factor that we need to pay attention to when it comes to students who struggle with mental health, trauma, and/or burnout. Students who strive to learn while struggling with the aforementioned concerns run on a survival response that kicks in to keep them safe, therefore, their learning is compromised (Brown, 2022). Being trauma-informed equips instructional designers and SMEs to do everything in their power to help students maintain their mental health and well-being instead of burning out (Brown, 2022).

Designing for Mental Health and Well-being

Our team has covered several different aspects of accessibility and universal design learning principles (UDL) on Model eLearning. However, what does it mean to design classes that promote students’ mental health and well-being as well as lessen burnout? Brown (2022) observes the process begins with training instructional designers and SMEs to be trauma-informed. Designing curriculum and learning environments with a trauma-informed mindset hinges on intersectional design. 

Originally used in the contexts of architecture and user experience (UX), intersectional design focuses on how factors of identity, including those we discussed earlier such as genetic, biological, personality, and environment interact with one another (Baldwin, 2021). In the context of instructional design, discovering how these factors intertwine enables us to understand someone’s context inside and outside the classroom environment as well as their priorities for engaging with the curriculum being created. Intersectional design means a course’s curriculum and learning environment take the following into account: 

  • The context of the students’ lives with regard to cultural and social backgrounds
  • Students’ needs, experiences, mental health, and well-being (Mental Health…, 2020; Understanding Why…, n.d.). 

In addition, intersectional design allows mental health, well-being, and burnout prevention strategies to hold a more prominent role for instructional designers and SMEs. Students who struggle with mental health, well-being, and burnout need strategies to come back from simply surviving to thriving. However, a student’s brain doesn’t have the capacity to implement these strategies or retain what they learn while they are in survival mode. Let’s explore two mental health, well-being, and burnout prevention strategies in more detail! 

Strategy 1: Managing Expectations  

The first prevention strategy is designing curriculum that has both manageable course outcomes and a manageable scope of learning, which benefits both students and faculty (Mental Health…, 2020; Understanding Why…, n.d.). This strategy includes telling students what they can expect in terms of assignments, course objectives, and course learning outcomes from the outset of the semester. In addition, designing courses in this way provides students with flexible UDL opportunities and activities to choose from that enhance their student experience as well as their lifestyle (Brown, 2022; Mental Health…, 2020; Understanding Why…, n.d.). I outline several strategies for managing expectations in my series on Communities of Inquiry (CoI), specifically Teaching Presence. The chart we shared in that post provides myriad ways that we can use CoI to manage expectations. 

Communities of Inquiry Teaching Presence

Course design: define learning outcomes and weekly objectives; provide engaging, relevant and appropriate learning activities; communicate expectations for student and instructor participation

Facilitating discourse: Encourage thinking out loud and openness for all ideas; reinforce and encourage student participation; model appropriate contributions

Direct instruction: Provide frequent, constructive feedback and guidance; present content in an effective and focused manner; add human dimension in multiple ways

Strategy 2: Holistic Learning Environment

The second prevention strategy is designing a holistic learning environment. In 2015, one of the main outcomes of the International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges was The Okanagan Charter. Written by a group of individuals representing 45 different countries, the charter provides an approach to integrating health promotion, including mental health and well-being, into all aspects of higher education. The charter reminds us students are most likely to engage with curriculum and retain what they learn when “they are holistically supported in a safe classroom environment” (Understanding Why…, n.d.). Regardless of the learning modality, students feel safer when there is no judgement, where they are free to make mistakes, have differing opinions, and participate and engage in the class in ways that benefit themselves as well as their classmates and their professor (Understanding Why…, n.d.). We can create this holistic learning environment by providing opportunities for students to make meaningful contributions and build connections with classmates and professors. The more positive connections and interactions a student has with their classmates and professors, the more likely they are to engage with the curriculum and retain what they learn (Understanding Why…, n.d.).

Being trauma-informed and implementing mental health, well-being, and burnout prevention strategies in course design and curriculum does not lessen a course’s rigor. However, it does, and should, alter how a course looks. We need to motivate students and expect them to rise to the challenge that academia requires. However, the last few years have taught us our life factors and circumstances can change in an instant. In the midst of these changes, we can create courses and curriculum based on empathy and understanding. As a result, we will provide students with safe, holistic learning environments for collaboration, trustworthiness, transparency, empowerment, peer support, humility, responsiveness, and choices—allowing students to thrive and retain what they learn regardless of their circumstances. Let me provide a few examples of what this looks like in the learning environment:

  • If students meet via a platform like Zoom or engage with their instructor and classmates in a tool like Flip, provide them with an opportunity to create community and check-in with their instructor and each other to see how life is going. 
  • Incorporate an assignment like a blog, journal, or small reflection paper that allows students to reflect on and process their life factors in the context of the curriculum so they can engage and apply it in relevant ways. 
  • Don’t overload a class with multiple assignments in the same week and/or too many technological tools in the same week. Yes, variety and innovation are good and all learning objectives and course outcomes need to be met, but at what cost to your students’ learning, mental health, and well-being? 


Whether in the context of instructional design, architecture, or UX, design must come from a place of “nuance, empathy and understanding” (Baldwin, 2021). Courses and learning environments that keep students’ mental health and well-being in mind provide strategies to “address the needs, identities and context of a client and place. A designer’s response needs to be informed by these different realities” (Baldwin, 2021). When I reflect on my experience with burnout, I realize the second prevention strategy, the holistic learning environment, and the opportunities I had for connecting with my classmates and professors helped me overcome it. The program’s group projects, discussions, and residencies provided me with opportunities to build connections and friendships. These connections and friendships allowed me to reach out to classmates on my own and form study groups for different classes. These study groups proved to be one of the most beneficial aspects of my program. They allowed me and my colleagues to build on our preexisting connections in the learning environment. Without the support system and community my colleagues and I created for each other, as well as the support and mentorship of my professors, I would have remained burned out. Through this experience, I can now more effectively empathize and understand where students are coming from in my work as an instructional designer and as a professor. 

How about you? How do you empathize with and understand the students you design courses for? How have you used, or can you use, aspects of intersectional design in your work  as an instructional designer or subject matter expert? Let us know in the comments below! 


Baldwin, E. (2021, September 9). Intersectional design: Rethinking architecture for the future. ArchDaily.

Brown, M. (2022, November 18). The need for trauma-informed instructional design. IDOL Courses.

Lister, K., & McFarlane, R. (2021). Designing for well-being: An inclusive learning design approach with student mental health vignettes. Open Praxis, 13(2), 184-200.

Mental health and curriculum design. (2020). Edsembli

Understanding why curriculum design and the learning environment need to reflect mental health. (n.d.). The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health.

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

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