We Must Invest in Our Students’ Mental Health

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Wednesday, May 3, 2023
By Amy Kristof-Brown
Photo by iStock/AlonzoDesign
Five things business school administrators can do to help students reduce stress, calm anxiety, and prioritize their emotional well-being.
  • Due to the pandemic and other stressors, students coming to campus today and over the next few years will need more emotional support than those who came before.
  • The Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa has hired an embedded therapist to provide one-on-one support to its students, as well as assist its faculty and staff in navigating students’ emotional struggles.
  • The college has adopted proactive strategies that aim to normalize the pursuit of good mental health and reduce the stigma around seeking out mental health support.


I lead a business school at a large public university in the United States, and like most business schools, we have seen our students struggle with their mental health. While the pandemic exacerbated this issue, we recognize that declining student mental health was a crisis long before we had heard of COVID-19.

The University of Iowa in Iowa City has an outstanding Student Counseling Service, but it’s overwhelmed with the high numbers of students grappling with depression, anxiety, and other issues. That’s why we decided to bring counseling services closer to our students in the Tippie College of Business and develop initiatives that meet their specific needs. As a first step, we hired an embedded therapist for the college in February 2020.

This timing was auspicious, as it coincided with the university’s transition to all-online classes at the start of the pandemic. Converting in-person appointments to virtual appointments came with the added challenge of knowing and following state licensure requirements in the states where our clients were living at the time. Our therapist also faced an additional learning curve when it came to making programs engaging on a virtual platform.

Hiring a therapist for our college has revealed a definite demand for these services: So many of our students are accessing individual therapy appointments that our therapist is at capacity. Today, our therapist spends half of her time in individual counseling and programming directed to students. The other half is spent identifying personal and environmental issues that may be damaging our students’ mental health, such as social anxiety, unhealthy coping skills, poor self-care behaviors, insufficient executive functioning skills, and pressures brought on by social and academic comparisons.  

However, many other services we have offered have not resonated. We initially delivered workshops on managing stress, sleep hygiene, self-care strategies, and motivation. These events were poorly attended, either because students weren’t required to attend or because they feared feeling judged. Nor did students utilize one-time drop-in mental health consultations to help solve immediate concerns.

Over the past three years, we have worked to identify ways to deliver the support our students need in forms they would use. To overcome students’ reluctance, we have started several initiatives designed to help students reduce stress, check their mental health, and seek out therapy and resources when appropriate.

A Proactive Approach

In addition to hiring a dedicated therapist, we decided to adopt five proactive strategies that put mental health care front and center in our students’ experience at Tippie. These strategies go beyond simply making students aware these resources exist. For example:

We normalize seeking help through targeted social media posts and peer support. Business students tend to be driven perfectionists with lofty career goals. They work hard at self-presentation and rarely let their guards down—even with themselves. We needed to find ways to make them feel safe seeking help.

So, we started to use our established communication channels to normalize seeking out mental health resources. For example, we developed an initiative several years ago that used the college’s Instagram account to have students self-report their stress levels during times when they are particularly anxious and vulnerable, such as midterms. In this way, we are able to identify and follow up with those who are struggling.

We also have reframed our communications to focus on relative rather than absolute success. That is, we point out that each student’s relative success can look different from someone else’s. For example, postgraduation job offers are often extended to students in finance and accounting before they start their senior year, while other major disciplines simply aren’t on the same timeframe.

To broaden students’ understanding of success, we created an avenue for them to give each other shout-outs on a weekly basis on the college’s Instagram Story. Our associate dean for the undergraduate program gives special virtual kudos to students for things like persevering in their job searches. We want students to internalize the idea that relative success is more important than absolute success measured in the number of job and internship offers.

We are forming an advisory board to assess needs. We are starting a program called Tippie Thrive to help students build emotional resilience through peer connections. The peer-led program will have a student advisory board to assess needs and develop programming. We anticipate that Tippie Thrive and its advisory board will increase our capacity for programming, create learning opportunities, connect students with their peers, and decrease the stigma surrounding mental health.

We have partnered with student organizations to deliver programming. When students didn’t show up for our college-sponsored group workshops, we reached out to the leadership of our more than 25 business-focused student organizations. We then arranged to deliver content during these organizations’ regular meeting times. Such coordination made content more accessible because it didn’t require students to go to separate events, further breaking down the barriers to mental health care.

We’ve held about a dozen events so far, which include workshops and skill-building programming that focus on topics such as self-care, stress management, self-esteem, self-compassion, and preparation for finals. The topics that students most frequently request for these events are self-care and study habits. During each meeting, students share their insights on a wide range of issues and the approaches that work for them. We also allow time for them to reflect on their own abilities, habits, and ways of coping, as well as time to apply the concepts they learn to support their emotional and mental health.

We include mental health support in the curriculum. We now embed stress-reduction techniques and other crisis-prevention skills into our required career preparation courses for our first-year, sophomore, and junior undergraduate students. By weaving these topics into the curriculum, we help students develop essential lifelong skills that they will need to be successful, such as increasing emotional awareness, building protective factors that lead to resilience, setting personal boundaries, and managing stress.

We emphasize to students that caring for their mental health is not only a way to care for themselves, but also an important part of their career success. We show them that developing an awareness of their own mental health will help them on two fronts. First, they will be better employees because they will be better able to address their stress and maintain a positive outlook. Second, they will be better managers because they will be attuned to the mental health issues of others. Plus, they will know that, as managers, they must “put their own oxygen masks on first” in order to best support their teams.

We turn to our faculty and staff for additional assistance. It’s important for faculty and staff to build strong relationships with our embedded therapist so they feel supported as they try to navigate students’ emotional and mental health. So, we have asked our embedded therapist to offer guidance to faculty and staff on how to respond to students who need assistance. We intend to deliver specific professional training on this topic in the future. Campus health services also make available dedicated support and programming to help faculty and staff address their own emotional well-being.

A Vital Part of Our Missions

So far, students have reported learning new skills and identifying with the material. “It was super relevant to my life right now,” one wrote in regard to a particular workshop. Another reported, “I realized things about myself that I didn’t know before. I found ways to help myself when feeling anxiety.”

But there is much more to do. This is still very much a work in progress, and we don’t have all the answers. I’m constantly talking to colleagues about how they are addressing these issues with their students, and I am always excited to learn from the experiences of others.

Addressing student mental health, especially among first-year students transitioning to college, is vitally important for retention and persistence. I’m not overstating the situation when I say that the students who step on campus today and those who come over the next few years have been traumatized by issues such as the pandemic. They are in greater need of socioemotional support services than ever before.

We cannot be effective as educators if our students are not in the right headspace for learning. Now is the time for us to invest in creative ways to reach our students. We must make mental wellness an essential part of our missions.

Amy Kristof-Brown
Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship and Henry B. Tippie Dean, Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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