How learning can improve your mental health

7 min read | Trisha Brookes | Article | Career development | Wellbeing

Are we currently living through a global mental illness epidemic? According to the charity Mind, in the UK alone, approximately one in four people will experience some form of mental health issue in any given year. This means that in our lifetime, most of us will either face a problem with our mental health or know someone who does, with anxiety and depression deemed the most prevalent.

Furthermore, the ubiquity of mental health conditions is increasing globally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), who cite the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing popularity of social media as contributing factors. However, many other things can also negatively impact a person’s mental health, including long-term stress, work, loneliness and poverty. If you’re struggling with your mental health, your most important priority is to seek help and support, whether this is from friends and family, your local GP, a trained therapist or a community support service.

It might be, however, that you’re just looking for simple ways to boost or maintain your overall mental wellbeing. Research has shown learning a new skill to be highly effective in this area, with a new sense of purpose and improved self-esteem just a couple of the benefits it can bring. The month of May marks both Learning at Work Week and Mental Health Awareness Week, so there’s no better time to explore the relationship between learning and mental health.

At a glance: the link between learning and mental health

  • Research finds that learning a new skill can improve cognitive function and minimise memory loss.
  • Learning can boost your confidence, combat loneliness and give you a sense of purpose.
  • Long-term work-related stress and poor mental health go hand-in-hand, whereas upskilling can open doors to a brighter future.

Lifelong learning promotes brain health 

As we age, the white matter that coats the neurons in our brain, called myelin, naturally degrades. The amount of myelin in the brain directly correlates to cognitive function – the more myelin present, the more neuron pathways are formed, allowing electrical impulses to travel faster. Learning encourages the production of myelin, which can improve brain health and memory.

Some research finds that lifelong learning can even delay the onset of dementia and protect the elderly against cognitive decline. Brain training apps have surged in popularity as a result, but there’s little evidence to support their effectiveness. Rather, learning a new skill is said to have the biggest impact on improving cognitive function and minimising memory loss. Our My Learning portal has a wide range of free courses, many of which are beginner level if you’re looking to learn a new skill.


Upskilling can boost self-confidence 

Viewing yourself in a negative light or believing you’re incapable of overcoming life’s challenges can be detrimental to your mental health, and if this is left unchecked, it can even lead to anxiety and depression. Learning a new skill is a great way of building confidence, as it requires you to go outside your comfort zone and overcome challenges to achieve a goal – whether that’s passing an exam, having a conversation in a foreign language that was previously unfamiliar to you, or knitting your first scarf. 

Working towards a goal can give you a sense of purpose and act as a healthy distraction to any stress and worries in your life, while reaching it has great potential to improve your self-confidence, and therefore your wellbeing. Learning a new skill in a group setting – such as an in-person class or team sport – will also help you to connect with likeminded individuals and combat any loneliness that you feel may be impacting your mental health. Alternatively, if you would prefer to develop a new skill from the comfort of your own home, check out some of the apps that are available on your smartphone, such as Duolingo to learn a new language, or YouTube for a variety of tutorials.


Learning can open doors to a more fulfilling future 

Almost two-thirds (61%) of UK employees who have left a job within the past year – or plan to leave in the next 12 months – cited problems with their mental health as a factor in their decision. The fact is that long-term work-related stress and poor mental health often go hand-in-hand. In fact, around 828,000 UK employees suffer from work-related stress, anxiety or depression each year. If your current job is negatively impacting your mental health, you may be considering exploring opportunities elsewhere. Upskilling can be a great way to enhance your CV and make your profile more attractive to prospective employers, helping you to secure a role that will allow you to thrive mentally as well as professionally.

Lifelong learning can be a powerful tool for improving your mental health. Whether you’re interested in completing a course, joining a class or finding a new hobby, learning has the potential to improve your brain health, confidence, future prospects, and ultimately your wellbeing. 

Begin your upskilling journey today by exploring the wide range of free courses available on our My Learning portal

About this author

Trisha Brookes, Director of People and Culture, UK&I, Hays

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