Millions of Americans abbreviate education due to mental illness

July 20, 1995

ANN ARBOR—More than 3.5 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 54 dropped out of high school and more than 4 million failed to enter or complete college because of psychiatric disorders, according to a University of Michigan study published in the current (July 1995) issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

More than 7 million people in the United States prematurely terminated their education because of early- onset psychiatric disorders and only a small fraction will later complete either high school or college, says Ronald C. Kessler, professor of sociology at the U-M and lead researcher on the study, part of the National Comorbidity Survey, a nationally representative survey of more than 8,000 Americans carried out between 1990 and 1992.

Kessler and colleagues found that about 14 percent of high school dropouts, 5 percent of high school graduates who do not enter college and nearly 5 percent of college entrants who do not graduate have histories of psychiatric disorders and that these previous bouts with mental illness are better predictors than other factors, including parents’ social class and family structure, of their subsequent educational attainment.

The youngest members of the sample, born between 1966 and 1975, had dropout rates due to early-onset psychiatric disorders that were dramatically higher than the oldest, born between 1936 and 1945. Nearly 24 percent of the youngest male high school dropouts and nearly 23 percent of the female high school dropouts reported prior psychiatric problems, compared with about 10 percent of the oldest male and 7 percent of the oldest female dropouts.

Kessler and colleagues attribute this change partly to an increase in the incidence of early-onset disorders and partly to increased social pressure to stay in school, rather than get a job as soon as possible.

Conduct disorders and substance abuse disorders are the most prevalent types of psychiatric problem among males and females who drop out of high school, while anxiety disorders are the most common disorder among females who fail to enter or complete college, Kessler and colleagues report.

Despite the fact that virtually all young people in the United States have access to education through high school and the fact that access to college has increased dramatically since World War II, about 12 percent of primary school graduates do not graduate from high school, about 50 percent of high school graduates do not enter college and about 50 percent of college entrants fail to obtain degrees,” Kessler says.

While there are many adverse personal consequences of truncated educational attainment, there are also societal consequences such as less training of the work force, less capability of full functioning in civic life, and greater demands on social welfare entitlements.

A cost accounting of these and other consequences may well lead to the conclusion that we cannot afford to forego the opportunity to develop early interventions and treatments to prevent these costly consequences for society and some of its most vulnerable citizens.

Co-authors of the study are Cindy L. Foster, researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research; William B. Saunders, department of applied healthcare research, Glaxo Research Institute, and Paul E. Stang, department of epidemiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the W.T. Grant Foundation and Glaxo Research Institute, Inc.


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