Statistics and research show that there is a strong correlation between education and health. This is no news – on average, people who have a high education level live significantly longer and lead healthier lifestyles than those with a lower education level.
However, what is not clear is how it works. Does education lead to a healthier life or are people with better health more able to educate themselves than others?
While this article does not attempt to answer the question, it does cover an interesting topic closely related to the subject. Liberal adult education, as in non-formal, non-vocational and voluntary studying, does seem to have a positive effect on one key component of health: mental well-being.
“There is no question about it. All research that has been done on this subject suggests that adult education definitely promotes mental well-being”, says professor Jyri Manninen.
Benefits found in the BeLL-project
Manninen, a professor and head of the Lifelong Learning and Adult Education Programme at the University of Eastern Finland, identified wider benefits of adult education in a study that was conducted across ten European countries.
A total of 8,646 participants answered a survey that measured changes they felt while taking part in liberal adult education.
Further interviews were conducted to verify the findings, and the results of the BeLL-project (Benefits of Lifelong Learning) were first published in 2014.
The main findings of Manninen and his research team were that liberal adult education increases learning motivation, social networks, quality of life, well-being and provides health benefits as well as a wide variety of competencies.
Notably, people with lower education levels experienced more changes than others when participating in liberal adult education. This is clearly reflected in the interviewee’s replies.
And when you realise ‘I can learn that, I can learn something new”, then that’s satisfying and you think: ‘So I could do this, too, or even this.’ (BeLL interviewee, Switzerland)
The benefits to mental well-being
Mental well-being can be defined as a combination of mental health, happiness, life satisfaction and quality of life, professor Manninen explains. And studying has multiple positive effects to this capacity that makes us feel well and enables us to carry on with our daily lives.
“Studying increases the feeling of coherence, self-confidence and satisfaction with life. It also builds confidence that you can make changes to your situation in life”, says Manninen.
There’s more to it, too. Additional to direct benefits, learning improves reading, communication and information-seeking skills that in turn help us to understand health-related information and communicate with medical personnel.
According to the interviews conducted in the BeLL-project, there is also a notably strong connection between the social aspect of studying and mental well-being.
“Especially for older people, mental well-being seems to be linked to social cohesion, as in social participation and sense of belonging to a community”, Manninen says.
But if all studying is beneficial to mental well-being, what’s so special about liberal adult education?
it’s nice- at my stage of life- to be close to somebody, it’s nice to make friends, it’s interesting to make friends with people who are younger than you and who are treating you as an equal. (BeLL interviewee, England)
Learning in a safe, social environment
Liberal adult education is non-formal, non-vocational education, where participation is voluntary and studies are based on the learner’s own interests.
Depending on the country, this type of education is usually provided by folk high schools, adult education centers, associations or voluntary organizations.
Professor Manninen names several features that are unique to liberal adult education and are likely to have a positive impact on mental well-being.
Firstly, there is voluntary participation and the choice of what to study.
“When you have the possibility to choose, you will be more likely to pick something that really interests you. It means that you’re already motivated”, Manninen says.
His second point emphasizes the social side of studying. Instead of reading on your own or completing online courses, you’re most likely to physically meet other people interested in the same subject.
“Liberal adult education usually means studying in a group. Social interaction and the sense of belonging to this group increases mental well-being”, Manninen says.
Thirdly, liberal adult education offers a relaxed environment to learn in.
“There are generally no tests, or at least no strict grading systems, which can be harmful for your self-confidence. You cannot overestimate the value of small experiences of accomplishment to your mental well-being”.
The most important aspect for me is that I’m working to improve myself and my abilities, [pause] that I have a sense of achievement and that I feel motivated, that is to say that I feel motivated in my general life. (BeLL interviewee, Germany)
What about mental health?
As mental health is one key component of mental well-being, let’s hear some thoughts about adult education from a professional working in this specific field.
Sami Pirkola is an experienced psychiatrist and professor of Social Psychiatry in the University of Tampere, Finland. He too acknowledges the importance of education to our mental health.
“Studying has a positive effect to our mental health in multiple ways. Expanding your knowledge and acquiring new skills has a positive influence on all areas of life.”
Education can also be a useful tool when we encounter mental health problems. Pirkola says that psychiatric treatment does recognize the value of studying, and it is something professionals encourage patients to do.
“One good example is vocational rehabilitation, which has proven to be very beneficial to patients. Helping someone to gain back their ability to work is a win-win situation for all parties – the individual, the employer and the society.”
Pirkola says that all education from folk high schools to university degree programs can have positive impacts on mental health.
“The difference between these types of education are the pace and objective of studying. What’s good for you depends on your own situation and capability”, he says.
When asked, he takes time to think about the significance of liberal adult education.
Pirkola, like professor Manninen, brings up the importance of choosing what to study instead of following a strict study plan.
Additionally, the low threshold to join liberal adult education can make a difference for people with mental health problems.
“Learning aside, we also have to remember that just having something to do during the day and meeting with other people can be very meaningful to someone”, Pirkola says.
Yes, I feel happier. Because if I did not come to the literature circle, I would be sitting on the sofa, doing nothing. But now since I have to come, I put on make-up, I take a shower, and I come… and you feel happier… You do not have time to be depressed or things like that… (BeLL interviewee, Switzerland)
Adult education as a recovery tool
Professor Manninen believes that liberal adult education could be useful in helping people to recover from many health-related issues, including mental health problems.
“Adult education could complement or in some cases even replace the medical treatment of problems related to physical and mental well-being. The principles are much the same as in art therapy, which has been used for a long time”, he says.
As a psychiatrist, professor Pirkola points out that serious mental disorders and problems require medical treatment and support. Having said that, he does see possibilities in the use of adult education during the recovery process.
“Liberal adult education could be a very useful tool that offers additional support to people who are for example suffering from depression or a burnout. Not to mention that it’s also very cost-effective.”
While liberal adult education is not yet widely used as a form of treatment, an unknown number of people are already taking advantage of it in order to improve their mental well-being.
When it comes to people working within adult education, Pirkola stresses the importance of treating participants individually and sensitively. It’s also important to know where to guide someone for further counseling if the need for it arises.
“You should be aware that among the group there can be people who are having a hard time and need more support than others”, he says.