There was a time when Matty Dixon would find himself routinely breaking down in tears on his drive to work. Until a run of injuries, he had juggled engineering roles at energy services company Petrofac with a parallel career playing rugby for Aberdeen Grammar in the Scottish Premiership. Then slipped discs forced his early retirement from the game in 2014.
Dixon lost his sense of purpose. “I was struggling with depression,” he says, but because of “toxic masculinity” he would tell himself to “just man up”. Eventually, he realised that he had to “deal with my problems or it was lights out — I planned my suicide”.
In 2017, he applied to the MBA at London Business School to find a new niche. Once there, he was assigned a therapist on campus, who helped him to see strengths stemming from his depression, which was also caused by childhood trauma, including “discovering I was adopted”.
81,960 Number of UK students who reported a mental health condition in 2018-19, according to UK’s HESA
“There’s stigma around mental health,” he says. Yet thanks to his struggles, the 34-year-old now has “a much better emotional understanding of people and I can empathise more. Being aware of that is hugely powerful for my self-worth and confidence. I am in a massively different place.”
Dixon still suffers from depression but has found ways to minimise the impact. Today he is a global business manager at Topcoder, a marketplace for freelancers. “Without the MBA, I would not be where I am now,” he says.
His experience reflects a wider crisis in student mental health. Figures from Britain’s Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of UK students reporting a mental health condition rose from 33,045 in 2014-15 to 81,960 in 2018-19. The effects can be serious and lead to worse academic performance and career prospects, dropouts, even suicides. The increase has been attributed to rising pressures in competitive academic environments, but also to students being more willing to speak out.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse, by upending the job market and creating financial uncertainty for students worried about debt. Campus closures have forced a fast switch to remote teaching, disrupting routines and causing “Zoom fatigue” and isolation. Travel restrictions are another source of anxiety for international students, on top of fears of infection.
“It is really traumatic. Everybody is anxious,” says Virginia Picchi, global director of psychological services at Insead, echoing her peers at other business schools. “If people are stressed, they can’t focus, their confidence drops and their academic performance will suffer.”
Yet the pandemic has also pushed more students to seek help and reduced the stigma. Insead, in France and Singapore, employs six clinical psychologists part-time. Between March and July, consultations increased by 25 per cent. “I have noticed a revolution in attitudes to mental health,” says Picchi. “Before, therapy was our best-kept secret. The people who came in were ashamed. But now, most often, students come on the recommendation of peers.” This shift is driven by a generation with far greater awareness as much as by pandemic pressures.
Business schools are responding by investing in resources to support student wellness. Copenhagen Business School this year launched a fresh outreach initiative, with guidance counsellors checking in on students to see if they need help such as advice or deadline extensions. The school also surveyed 1,805 students in the spring and found that 59 per cent reported increased feelings of loneliness, 53 per cent felt more down and 45 per cent were more anxious through lockdown.
As a result, 70 per cent said they felt less motivated to study and 52 per cent feared they were doing less well in their studies. However, overall, grades have risen compared with spring last year, perhaps because home assignments tend to yield higher results than sit-in exams.
Nikolaj Malchow-Moller, Copenhagen Business School’s president, says an excessive focus on high grades in Danish university admissions, driven by government regulation, is “feeding a culture of perfectionism. There is almost no tolerance for failure. Students are under huge pressure.”
London Business School is employing technology to support students. The school provides two smartphone applications, TalkCampus and Fika, a peer support network and courses that help students to self-care. “We are empowering students to take control of their mental health,” says Diana Favier, associate director of assessment and wellbeing services for degree education. “You need to practise mental fitness in the same way you go to the gym and work out.”
In October, the University of St Gallen in Switzerland launched a “Health Week” to promote wellbeing through, for example, fitness, sleep and nutrition workshops on campus. Students often stretch themselves too thinly by trying to make the most of a broad curriculum and extracurricular activities, says Florian Schulz, head of psychological counselling services at the business school.
Between 2013 and 2019, the number of students in counselling increased by 230 per cent. Through lockdown, numbers fell because some students preferred in-person sessions and did not take up the online consultations offered.
“We want to reframe mental health in a more positive light,” Schulz says, noting that research links wellbeing at work with higher productivity. “A career is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t want alumni to get to 35 and burn out.”
Tim Mescon, chief officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at AACSB International, the business school accreditation agency, says schools have a further incentive to build up their support services as employers increasingly seek out graduates who can manage stress and support others. “Mental health is becoming part of the management landscape of the future,” he says.