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Business Schools Addressing Mental Health in Learners

Anxiety and depression in higher education learners have been on the rise in recent years; how are business students affected, and what are schools doing to help?

The subject of mental health in higher education has become a significant focus of news and media organizations over the past few years, with article after article pointing to different research studies and reports conducted specifically on the topic. While most studies are not discipline-specific (one Harvard study is an exception, focusing on economics doctoral students), the findings have one thing in common: depression and anxiety are on the rise in higher education learners.

The Statistics

The Harvard study, for example, found that “[d]epression and symptoms of anxiety increase with time in the program: 25% of students in years 5+ of their programs experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression or anxiety compared with 14.5% of first-year students.” Another study of graduate students globally found that 36 percent of doctoral students surveyed had sought help for academic-related anxiety or depression. And yet another study of postgraduate researchers at more than 100 institutions in the U.K. discovered that only 14 percent of respondents reported having low anxiety; compare this to 41 percent of the general population reporting low anxiety.

Counseling professionals at higher education institutions globally corroborate the increased levels of anxiety and depression. A survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that “the most frequent concern for counseling center clients was anxiety (58.9%), followed by depression (48.0),” among different sets of centers reporting. In the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) 2018 annual report, which contains data on students already receiving mental health services, clinicians identify anxiety and depression as the “most common concerns of students,” and the report says that student self-reporting of both conditions is, on average, rising.

Stigma and Self-Reporting

Given the strong historical stigma against mental illness and students’ reluctance to seek treatment, it’s difficult to know whether incidences are actually rising as much as they seem to be or whether reporting of them is rising. Based on student self-reporting in the CCMH report, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety all increased from 2010 to 2018. One possible explanation is that students have, over time, begun to feel more comfortable seeking mental health services, which adds to previously available data. A contributing factor could be that the broader societal campaigns that have sought to destigmatize mental illness in recent years—like Time to Change in the U.K., See Me in Scotland, Beyond Blue in Australia—have achieved their purpose by lifting the shame from individuals affected by mental illness or distress.

Regardless of the reason the numbers have increased, the fact that more instances are being reported means that schools need to have adequate services available to address the seemingly growing concerns among learners.

The Business School Factor

So how are these instances of decreased mental health manifesting in business students? And how are business schools working to address the issue? I reached out to member schools on our AACSB discussion forum to ask these questions. Several schools responded with strategies they have implemented to help ensure their students have access to reporting their concerns and are learning about stress management and wellness from a proactive approach.

Dealing With Uncertainty and Competing Priorities

As many of the recent studies point out, dips in mental health occur most prominently in graduate learners. Add to that the particular pressures of the volatile business environment that business students are in or will enter, the perceived crisis with the MBA degree, and continuing disruption of traditional degree programs, and today’s learners face mounting pressure to not only succeed but validate the value of their degree.

Katie Lloyd, assistant dean of MBA programs at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, says of the job market uncertainty, “This is a large stressor for full-time students. They feel pressure from their families, the school, their peers, and themselves to find the perfect job before graduation. This is especially mentally taxing for international students who need to worry about obtaining a visa.” To help alleviate some of that worry, Scheller prioritizes the job search by including it as part of orientation, rather than waiting until the later part of the degree program, when anxiety about the future is already likely to be high.

Another common issue among business students is trying to balance multiple priorities, with high pressure to excel at all of them. Lloyd says that many learners in Scheller’s programs have families, are involved in multiple extracurricular activities, hold leadership positions within the college, and either work full-time or have a graduate research assistantship within the college. “This is all on top of the rigors of academic coursework and searching for a job,” she adds.

To help combat this stressor, Scheller provides programming at orientation and throughout each year that equips students to lead through challenging and unpredictable situations. One semester the session focused on reflection, while in another semester the theme was grit and resilience. The college is also partnering more with the universitywide counseling center as well as a health initiatives office that provides wellness support to students. Eventually they aim to hire a mental health professional dedicated to the college.

Support for students is also being led by students themselves. At Scheller, students are creating their own wellness club with a goal of building awareness of the mental health and well-being initiatives on campus, as well as hosting a “Wellness Wednesday” beginning early 2020. These sessions likely will include basic wellness and mindfulness techniques, like yoga, meditation, and healthy eating.

Addressing Issues Head-On

The Fordham University Gabelli School of Business has likewise moved from a reactive to a proactive position. The school saw a significant climb in the number of mental health-related leaves of absence and withdrawals in recent years; further, students increasingly were coming to business advising sessions less for academic concerns and more for stress and anxiety management. So the school got strategic.

They hired a clinically trained social worker to deal with business students’ nonacademic issues and refer them to the university counseling center as needed. The counselor helps support students at risk for increased anxiety and depression, like those returning from leaves of absence, underperforming academically, or otherwise showing symptoms during regular advising appointments.

Additionally, the school joins units across the university in monthly meetings to review universitywide strategies and the effectiveness of current policies and protocols around mental health. They sometimes bring up student cases to determine whether similar issues are occurring in other colleges, as well as share new initiatives adopted by various schools and departments at the university, to help inform best practices.

The school also offers proactive workshops and sessions for all students who are interested in learning how to reduce stress and anxiety. Further, business school faculty, staff, and administration recently participated in the school's first Mental Health Awareness Day, receiving mindfulness training and information on supporting mental health.

Embedding Mindfulness in Courses

At Providence College, Management Department chair Matthew Eriksen is addressing anxiety with the college’s students through his leadership courses. Though it wasn’t his original aim, Eriksen discovered through a colleague working on a suicide prevention grant that his course had impacted two students who had struggled with anxiety. The students mentioned how Eriksen's leadership course had helped them accept and relate to their anxiety in a productive manner.

To understand anxiety more deeply, Eriksen engaged in an independent study on anxiety with these students. Through their research, he discovered that his course had all the elements of acceptance and commitment therapy, which uses principles of mindfulness and identification of values to help individuals better deal with difficult realities. Eriksen also completed a graduate certificate in Mindfulness for Educators as well as coaching certification, which he believes has allowed him to develop a class structure and environment that helps students change their relationship with anxiety.

In class, Eriksen aims to normalize anxiety, helping students understand that it’s a normal part of being human; with a greater awareness of their anxiety, students can have a choice in how they relate and respond to it. Students are taught to articulate their subjective experience relevant to the course readings, which they share on a forum with their peers. Inevitably students choose to write about some of their more challenging experiences. Eriksen believes this peer sharing helps cultivate a supportive environment by helping students to see that, unlike images often portrayed in social media, everyone struggles and has anxiety, much as they do.

Continuing the Conversation

The topic of mental health and business schools is not likely to go away anytime soon, and in fact will only become louder. The Journal of Management Education, for example, recently called for submissions to a special issue on “Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being among Management Students and Educators,” forthcoming later this year, to advance research on the subject.

Additionally, AACSB’s upcoming Deans Conference is dedicating a panel session to ways schools can ensure their students thrive amid rising mental health challenges. Deans from three schools will discuss how their institutions are addressing mental health issues and building resilience in learners.

We look forward to sharing best practices and learning more about how schools help ensure the mental well-being of learners, as one important aspect of their success.


Lee DavidsonLee Davidson is the editor for digital content at AACSB, located in the Tampa, Florida, office.