How Education Affects Mental Health
Various studies have shown that low levels of education are associated with mental health problems. In recent work by Norwegian researchers (Dalgard, et al, 2007) low level of education was found to be strongly associated with a low sense of mastery and, in men, many negative life events. In this journal entry I explore the meaning of the term mastery, the role of education and how both of these became the focus of attention within Dalgard's research.
In 2003, the European Union recommended a set of mental health indicators for Europe. This involves collecting, for example, information about social networks, stressful life events and positive mental health (i.e. mastery). Various additional indicators relating to quality of life, employment status, educational background and details of the particular condition or disease process are also sought. For the Norway study, data on 4446 people were analysed.
Mastery can be thought of as a coping process in which a disease process or illness is considered by an individual to be under their control. We all search for mastery in different ways but our search is reflected in the questions we frequently ask ourselves. For example, ‘how do I avoid getting this again', or ‘I'm not well, so what's the best way of dealing with this'. Our sense of mastery is therefore employed from something as minor as a common cold to something as significant as cancer or mental ill health. We also employ a number of techniques in our search for mastery including diet, acquiring knowledge, self-medication, meditation, exercise, and developing a positive attitude.
In the Norway study, sense of mastery was measured using a simple 5-item scale developed by Pearlin (1981):
There is really no way I can solve some of the problems I have
Sometimes I feel I am pushed around in life
I have little control over the things that happen to me
I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life
There is little I can do to change many of the important things in my life
The research found the relationship between sense of mastery and psychological distress to be highly significant.
The Relationship between Mastery & Education
The question as to why sense of mastery is associated with psychology distress may be due to the fact that low sense of mastery is a stressor in its own right. The authors of this particular study speculate that low sense of mastery is associated with other stressors like, "unemployment, low income, weak social support and negative life events" (p.7).
Low levels of education are risk factors for psychological distress. Reducing drop out levels from school and encouraging education, guidance and support beyond school leaving age are likely to have an effect on risk reduction. The authors of this study argue that, "low sense of mastery seems to account for much of the association between low educational level and psychological distress" (p.1) Here is a case for education to include a stronger sense of empowerment in order to increase the sense of mastery people perceive in all aspects of their work and personal life.
Dalgard, O.S., Mykletun, A., Rognerud, M., Johansen, R., Zahl, P. H (2007) Education, sense of mastery and mental health: results from a nation wide health monitoring study in Norway. BMC Psychiatry. 7: 20, 1-9.