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You Are Not Alone: Student Mental Health in Business Schools

Posted January 05, 2021 by Gregory S. Dawson - Clinical Professor - Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business

Tom was a student in several of my classes in the fall of 2019 at Arizona State University’s (ASU) W.P. Carey School of Business.* From my viewpoint at the front of the class, Tom seemed to have it all together. A first-generation college student, Tom was a burly guy with a ready smile and friendly greeting for everyone. He did well in my class, seemed to have lots of good friends in the program, and was fully engaged in the course. He had accepted a job with a great firm and had a bright future ahead of him.

When I received an email from Tom several months after the course had ended, it shook me:

Just to get a little personal with you, throughout a majority of Q1 and Q2 I realized that I was suffering. I was having intense waves of emotion that I could not control and it was the first time in my life where I felt anything like that. Whenever this would happen, I had irrational thoughts come into my head and I consider myself lucky that it never came to harming myself or others because I know others aren’t so lucky when they are battling with emotions like this. I remember distinctly one day I walked into class after struggling to study because I was just having one of those waves hit me and I was dead-set on withdrawing from the program because I had convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to be there. If it wasn’t for calling out to my wife at that moment I may just have gone through with that. At that point I realized that something was wrong and that I needed help, and after talking to my amazing wife I decided to go see a therapist at ASU…

My first thought was dismay: How could I have failed to spot a student in distress when he was sitting right in front of me? While I am an accounting professor, I had spent some time in my undergraduate years working at a suicide prevention hotline and had been well trained to understand mental health struggles in college students. Additionally, my university regularly disseminated guidance to all faculty and staff about mental health awareness and available resources. But, despite all of this training and my interactions with Tom, I had missed his suffering.

Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn about his troubles. The statistics are staggering: Roughly one-third of college students report experiencing mental health challenges. While academic performance is one type of pressure contributing to decreased mental health, students are also dealing with COVID-related pressures, job pressures, financial pressures, and family pressures, among others. For first-generation college students or first-generation Americans, the problems can be especially acute, as these students often feel extra pressure while being afforded fewer resources.

My experience with Tom has taught me several things.

First, you are not alone. If you are a person who is struggling with mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, “imposter syndrome,” or any feelings or emotions you can’t seem to control, you are actually one of many rather than the only one. I regularly meet with students who believe they are the only ones experiencing imposter syndrome—the feeling that they are undeserving of their accomplishments, or incapable of achieving the tasks they’ve been chosen to do. The reality is that almost everyone feels overwhelmed or not good enough at some point during their education.

I recall with astonishment a student I met with last year. She was bright, thoughtful, and extremely sought after as a group partner because of her intelligence, determination, and personality. We were chatting about her upcoming internship, and all of a sudden huge tears streamed down her face as she confessed to feeling unworthy of the opportunity that awaited her. She came from a loving and supportive family, had done well in her classes, and had a strong group of friends. Yet she still felt like the job was going to reveal that she was merely faking her abilities. If you feel this way, too, trust me that you are not alone.

Second, resources are already available to you. We are fortunate that ASU has robust mental health facilities on campus for students, faculty, and staff. In Tom’s case, he learned about them during his business program orientation, where incoming students were given a list of mental health resources. Even though this information filled a short portion of the program, it was enough for Tom to know the resources existed on campus and how to access them.

Third, services are affordable. Campus mental health facilities are either free or very low cost. At ASU, any student who walks into the mental health center will be seen promptly by a mental health professional. The meeting is far more than a perfunctory visit and, in Tom’s case, was a lengthy session that left him feeling happier and more capable than he had felt in a long time. At ASU, subsequent sessions are available for a nominal charge (15 USD per visit after the initial visit), with free options available to students with financial need.

Tom shared how speaking with a therapist had helped:

After the very first session it felt like the weight of the world was finally off my shoulders and I could breathe again. I realized that part of what I was struggling with was impostor syndrome which I found was extremely common for students at all levels of school but mostly for those in graduate programs and above. I had a couple other sessions with the therapist at ASU and have yet to feel anything compared to what I felt in Q1 and Q2.

Fourth, getting help is an act of courage. Students often are reluctant to share their struggles, as they perceive the need to do so as a sign of weakness. Instead, they suffer silently in hopes that someone will notice their distress and reach out. While such serendipity can happen, in the era of large class sizes and remote learning, it is considerably difficult for a professor to notice a person’s struggles, and it is nearly impossible for people with even less student interaction, like support staff, to become aware. A friendly professor or a helpful support staff member can greatly facilitate intervention and recovery, but only once they are aware of the issue.

Faculty members and support staff can be important allies in these situations. While we are not skilled therapists, we know (or can easily find out) what resources the university has available and can help guide you to them.

Fifth, technology is your friend. Thanks to videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, it is often unnecessary for students to physically visit a university’s mental health center to get help. At ASU, a student can make and attend an appointment entirely from the comfort of their dorm room or apartment. While this format is especially helpful during the pandemic, it also lowers the barrier to entry for students who might be inhibited by anxiety, have limited mobility, or fear social repercussions of getting help. Anonymity is completely preserved and, with a simple search on the university website, the path to healing can begin.

In Tom’s case, things worked out well and he has applied the lessons he learned from ASU’s counseling services to his professional life and his personal life. He recently told me, “I didn’t know that I could be this happy.” If you are struggling with mental health challenges, I urge you to seek resources at your university or reach out to a professor or staff member you trust. They exist to help you.

*Tom is not the student’s real name. His emails were used with permission.

Gregory S. Dawson, Clinical Professor, School of Accountancy at Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business Gregory S. Dawson is a clinical professor in the School of Accountancy at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe.