NEW YORK — People with too little education to meet their needs are known to be at increased risk of certain mental health problems, but now a new study suggests that too much education may also have detrimental effects on mental health.
People in the study who were "overeducated" — who had more years of education than their jobs required — were at an increased risk of depression, the researchers said.
The study analyzed information from more than 16,600 employed people ages 25 to 60 in 21 countries in Europe. Researchers measured participants' levels of depression based on their answers to survey questions, and presented their results here Saturday (Aug. 10) at the American Sociological Association meeting.
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.
Previous research in Europe has found that people with lower education levels have about double the risk of having severe and frequent symptoms of depression, compared to people with more education, but the risk varies depending on country.
The new study also found that having many highly educated people in a given country can have detrimental effects on the mental health of all people with college degrees. In countries where more education did not provide significantly more job security or salary, even those with degrees who had jobs that matched their skill level saw declines in their mental health on average, Bracke said.
"If the economic returns of education decrease, it affects the mental health of all the well-educated," Bracke said. [7 Ways to Reduce Job Stress]
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.
While people may start out with a job that they are overqualified for in the beginning of their career, they need opportunities to move upward in their field within a few years, or they could experience declines in mental health, Bracke said.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.