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Why Business Schools Should Focus on Mental Health


With mental illness and substance abuse costing American business an estimated $300 billion a year, why isn’t the topic of mental health ingrained in our business schools alongside finance, GAAP rules or market segmentation?

That is the question leaders at the National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC) at The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus presented to the Dean and faculty of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, almost two years ago. What resulted was a remarkable partnership to create deeper opportunities for Leeds undergraduate and graduate students to develop the personal skills, leadership savvy, organizational management and communication strategies to better address mental health and mental illness as an important focus for optimizing a workforce.

One of their first joint ventures was sponsorship of the 16th annual Net Impact Case Competition (NICC), in which teams from MBA programs around the world competed to address issues of corporate sustainability. The challenge required teams to understand and address the costs, benefits and risks associated with mental health in the case company. A well-rounded approach was needed, including corporate leadership to help affect culture change, communication strategy to address stigma, and employee benefits that adequately met needs while balancing costs. Leeds MBA students hosted and helped develop the case with sponsors and faculty, but they did not compete. The winning team from the MIT Sloan School of Management took home a $15,000 prize and a deeper understanding of why mental health matters to business.

At the same time NMHIC staff supported execution of the national case competition, they began working with faculty to determine where mental health topics and information were relevant to existing learning objectives in current courses in the Leeds undergraduate program. During the fall and spring semesters, first year students in a communication strategy course participated in a capstone case competition which required demonstration of their persuasive speaking skills. Mental Health Innovation Center staff worked with the faculty to prepare a mental health-relevant case to use for this purpose. As a result, every freshman in the business school got practice persuading the case company’s management that mental health was worthy of their focus and investment. After all, leaving mental health as a taboo topic is akin to embracing enormous workplace-related costs in absenteeism, lost productivity, employee turnover and disability. Students practiced arguing that people suffer, and so does the bottom line, when stigma remains a barrier to help-seeking.

In a course on essential management skills, students were taught behavioral signs that might indicate that an employee or colleague was suffering stress overload or struggling with a mental health challenge that warranted supportive intervention. In communication courses, students were provided practice opportunities for handling difficult conversations with employees who may be exhibiting signs of declining mental health. They were taught methods for establishing trust, conveying respect and acceptance, addressing performance changes, and normalizing conversations about mental wellness and illness to reduce stigma.

Students learning about organizational behavior and human resources gained knowledge about how effective early intervention and treatment for mental illness or addiction can lower total medical costs, increase productivity, lower absenteeism, decrease disability costs and lower rates of costly employee turnover. These are goals for virtually any company’s management, especially when an estimated one in five American adults grapples with mental health or addiction in any given year.

As students developed ways to combat today’s reality in these course activities, they also discovered how much it mattered to them personally. Faculty in the undergraduate program recognized the exceptional level of interest and engagement among students. Most students had never discussed this topic in any of their studies; one instructor remarked that she had not seen “this kind of buzz” in any prior competition.

Students said that being part of this project gave them valuable understanding and insight into their own lives, as they interact with peers, family and friends who experience mental health issues. Also, they shared their enthusiasm about using this knowledge in their careers. As one student summed up his experience, “the most critical thing we had to address was normalizing the conversation around mental illness."

The goal with this initiative is to equip the next generation of business leaders with awareness and skills to promote workplace mental health and participate in improving access to care. Until employees are healthy, mentally as well as physically, business simply can’t perform at optimal levels. Until our professional schools embrace this need, we will fall short in preparing students for life beyond the campus.

The partnership between The National Mental Health Innovation Center and The Leeds School of Business is a start, and one that many universities and colleges can make their own. But NMHIC’s vision is to make mental health literacy a necessity in many professions that have a hand in culture change and new solutions. There is opportunity to raise mental health “IQ” among not only the next generation of business leaders, but future leaders in many other fields, including law, journalism, computer science, dentistry and more – by introducing relevant mental health challenges and solutions that are within the reach of the profession’s practice.

The National Mental Health Innovation Center at the University of Colorado invites higher education colleagues around the country to join them in giving students the mental health knowledge and skills they need to be effective in whatever their chosen fields. For insight into how they are approaching this challenge and what may work for institutions you lead or influence, reach out to the National Mental Health Innovation Center.

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