The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 40 million people in the United States have at least one mental health disorder.
About 5 million of them are adults ages 18 and older.
A study published online in the journal Neurology found that people with a nursing degree who are diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions in the nursing education setting are more likely to have serious adverse events in the future.
The researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, a nationally representative survey of nurses nationwide, to analyze the association between nursing education and adverse events.
“Nursing is a critical area of education for many people who have been diagnosed with mental health problems,” said lead author Mary Jo Anderson, a professor of nursing education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“However, the associations were stronger for women and less for men than for adults.”
This is the first study to examine the association among nursing education, depression and adverse event rates in adults with and without mental health issues, Anderson said.
Previous studies have shown that nursing education helps prevent depression and other mental disorders, but only for people with some mental health concerns.
But in this study, the researchers focused on the association of nursing and other health-related education, including health insurance, with mental illness.
People with a bachelor’s degree in nursing were 3.7 times more likely than those with a high school diploma to have a depressive episode in the previous year.
People who completed a nursing education program were 7.5 times more than those who did not have any education.
They also were 1.4 times more in a clinical assessment of depressive symptoms, a self-report measure of the severity of symptoms.
This is consistent with other studies that have shown a higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in nursing compared to other health care settings.
“We were very surprised,” Anderson said, noting that the findings “are very strong.”
The study was part of a larger effort to identify factors that contribute to the negative outcomes associated with nursing, Anderson noted.
“I think this is a very strong finding that the association is strongest for nursing education,” she said.
“And the authors point to the fact that the nursing profession has a long history of encouraging people to take care of themselves and to have quality care.”
In the study, people with mental disorders were more likely, on average, to be prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics for depression and had higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
This study does not prove that nursing is inherently linked to mental illness, but it may be one factor that contributes to the adverse outcomes, Anderson added.
“This is a study that is not going to show that nursing somehow has a role in these adverse events,” she added.
But she said that “this association suggests that it’s important to make sure that people who are nursing or have been nursing in their career are trained in the proper care and treatment of people with health problems.”
In addition to Anderson and her co-authors, the study was co-authored by David W. Cote, MD, a research associate in the Division of Mental Health at the National Institute of Mental Diseases.
The study is published online July 16 in Neurology.