More years of education may protect from psychiatric problems

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( Image: Unsplash)
( Image: Unsplash)
New research from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) suggests that individuals with higher levels of education have a lower risk of psychiatric problems. The study indicates that prolonged education may serve as a protective factor against conditions such as depression, ADHD, alcohol dependence, and anxiety.

Data from 1.7 million Dutch individuals and global genetic information were employed to explore the links between educational attainment and mental well-being. The results are published in Nature Mental Health.

Around 10% of adults born between 1965 and 1985 in the Netherlands received at least one psychiatric disorder diagnosis between 2011 and 2016. However, individuals with higher education were notably less impacted, with each additional year of education associated with a decrease in the risk of being diagnosed, up to 20% for schizophrenia for example.

"While further research is needed to understand the mechanisms at play, our study underscores the potential protective role of education in promoting mental well-being", says lead researcher and VU Amsterdam psychological scientist Perline Demange. "For the scientific community, we also stress the importance of using multiple types of methods and data, to build confidence in our conclusions."

Data from 766,000 families

To ensure the credibility of their results, the researchers used a rigorous approach that included comparing siblings within 766,000 Dutch families. This method allowed them to assess the effect of education on psychiatric disorders while accounting for shared factors among siblings, such as shared genetics, parental behavior, childhood and school environment. The findings consistently demonstrated that each year of education is strongly linked to a lower risk of psychiatric disorder diagnoses.

In addition to analyzing Dutch siblings, the researchers employed genetic data to support their findings. The genetic analysis affirmed the protective effect of education against depression, PTSD, alcohol dependence, and anxiety. "However, it also indicated a potential increased risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa with more education, which requires further investigation", says Demange.

Unexpected results

Co-author and VU Amsterdam psychological scientist Michel Nivard commented on these unexpected results, suggesting that certain disorders may be associated with traits that are beneficial for education, before the first symptoms manifest. "In the Netherlands, individuals later diagnosed with bipolar disorder are two to three times more likely to have started the pre-university high-school track (VWO) and dropped out of school than to obtain any other diploma", says Nivard.

VU Amsterdam psychological scientist Elsje van Bergen and also co-author of the study, highlighted the potential dual benefits of education. "By remaining in school for a longer period, individuals not only acquire knowledge and skills but may also develop resilience against psychiatric problems", says Van Bergen.