In Brief

Having a doctorate or master's degree may offer career advancement, but it may also have negative effects on one's mental health, according to a recent study funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and published in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion (Vol. 17, No. 4).

Psychologist Cheryl Koopman, PhD, and principal investigator and psychologist Robert A. Matano, PhD, of Stanford University, measured the mental health status of 460 employees at a large Silicon Valley workplace in northern California and found that the workers--more than half of whom held doctoral or master's degrees--received low scores on a mental health measurement compared with national norms.

"Our sample was skewed toward a higher proportion with advanced degrees than in the general population," says Koopman. "The national norms are based on considerable evidence, so it is a fairly compelling difference to find that this work force sample scored on average so poorly on the Mental Health Index."

Work stress did not appear to differentially affect workers' mental health in the same ways home stress did. Workers who reported antidepressant use, in addition to frustration at home, were among those who reported the poorest mental health among study participants. Workers who reported they avoid coping with stress and aren't satisfied at home also fared badly, adds Koopman. Furthermore, those who reported high levels of work stress fared even worse if they also reported unhappiness at home. "Having a satisfying home life seemed to be really important," she says.

Koopman and her fellow researchers are surprised by the connection between poor mental health and advanced degrees. She is quick to add that her research team isn't generalizing results to other workplaces because her team hadn't originally expected to find--let alone examine--the connection. They had set out to identify characteristics of employees who had poorer mental health. Nonetheless, they believe it's essential to examine the connection further because the highly educated make up a large, growing sector of the U.S. work force.

"We need to find how generalizing this unexpected finding is by sampling lots of workplaces in different geographic regions," she says.

Study participants completed a mental health survey that included questions on home and work satisfaction and stress, recent stressful events, antidepressant use, alcohol abuse, frequency of visits to health professionals and ways of coping with stress. The mental health measurement put participants on average in the bottom 32 percent of the U.S. population in mental health, indicating that they scored below the norms on this mental health scale.

Koopman and colleagues also found a surprising gender difference in their results: "Overall, women within the work force had better mental health if they had completed more education compared with those women who had less education," she says. The finding is particularly interesting when considering that previous studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer from depression and traumatic stress than men are.

"Perhaps higher education makes women feel more resilient and able to buffer some of the stress," Koopman posits. "Or maybe more resilient women seek higher education in the first place."

In any case, Koopman and her colleagues are eager to delve deeper into the higher education and mental stress connection. She and her fellow researchers also plan to explore whether specific characteristics of the workplace they studied--which the researchers must keep confidential--promote stress. They will also examine whether higher education attainment brings about added pressure to succeed at work.

Koopman also stresses the need to explore ways to enhance the mental health of highly educated workers.