Study: Too Much Education Can Lead to Mental Health Problems

A lack of educational opportunities have long been linked with higher rates of mental illness, but a new study from Ghent University in Belgium finds that too much education can correlate with a negative impact on mental health as well. According to researchers, people who were “overeducated” – those whose academic preparation was more rigorous than their job required – were found to be at a higher risk for depression.

The study looked at nearly 17,000 people between the ages of 25 and 60 employed in over 20 countries around Europe. The conclusions were presented at the latest meeting of the American Sociological Association in early August.

Rachael Rettner, a senior writer for LiveScience, explains that higher rates of depression in the overeducated demographic could be explained by the fact that they’re simply not feeling challenged by their jobs.

The reason overeducated people may have an increased risk of mental distress could be because, by definition, they are not challenged by their jobs, and cannot use all of the skills they acquired during their education, said study researcher Piet Bracke, a professor of sociology at Ghent University in Belgium.

They also have jobs with less status and prestige, and tend to have unbalanced support networks — they rely on others for support more often than those people are able to provide it — which may contribute to their depression risk, Bracke told LiveScience.

Researchers also determined that in countries where a large proportion of the population has advanced degrees, the rate of depression among all college graduates is higher than in countries that do not. According to Bracke, even people who were employed in jobs that took advantage of their skills fully were more likely to be depressed if they lived in a country where this was often not the case. Bracke said that this condition existed in most nations where educational return on investment declined.

Still, Bracke said that he did not consider the expansion of higher education a bad thing.

But in many western countries, labor markets are slow to catch up with the increasing numbers of overeducated people, leading to a lack of challenging jobs for these people, Bracke said.

“At the country level, if the number of people with university education continues to rise, [and] if there isn’t an equivalent upgrading of the labor market, it will deteriorate the mental health of the population,” Bracke said.