The Dangerous Crisis of Mental Health and Student Loans

Written by Spencer Kelly

Every year in America, 20 million students walk through the doors of an institution of higher learning for the first time. It is a time filled with hope for their futures, the promise of a brighter tomorrow as they seek to better their minds and improve their futures for themselves, their families, and their communities. By the time that incoming class of 20 million reaches graduation, approximately 14 million students will make an investment in their futures with loans largely backed by the government to help finance their education. This investment, however, comes at a high price.

           The sheer size of student debt American students face is staggering. At present, Americans owe $1.5 trillion, a number that has more than doubled in the preceding decade and is still on the rise. Student debt is the second largest type of debt in the United States, behind only home ownership and ahead of both credit cards and auto loans. This debt falls heavily on the young, with 2 of every 5 adults under the age of 30 owing student debt and 1 of every 5 adults aged 30-44 owing student debt. Without intervention, this trend will continue to grow, as tuition inflation sits around 7.5%, about twice the inflation of the Consumer Price Index.

           The effects of such crippling debt are wide and varied. Some are rather straightforward – an inability to save for the future, the possibility of default, a lack of money to buy a home or raise a family. These problems are often multigenerational. Student debt accrued during marriage is generally passed on to the spouse, and many private loans are not discharged upon death, meaning that loan collectors may collect against a decedent’s estate. However, too unnoticed are the very real effects of student debt on a person’s mental and emotional health.

           Stress from student debt necessarily affects a person’s mental health. While admittedly few studies have been conducted linking student debt and mental health, the results of those that have are astonishing. In a recent survey, 35% of student debt holders responded that they physically lost sleep over their debt, while 50% reported developing anxiety or depression. 62% became socially reclusive, skipping activities or trips with friends and family. When asked what they would do to have their student loans disappear, 20% were willing to cut off a finger or a toe, slightly more than the 19% who were willing to forego electricity for a year.  Yet, despite one in five student debt holders claiming they would self-mutilate to remove their debt, few of those affected seek help from mental health professionals. Only 15% of people with student debt reported talking with a mental health professional to deal with the stress of student debt, and only 4% did so regularly.

          The mental health challenges from student debt are unique in that they put severe financial strain on young adults. If these two factors, debt and youth, are what make this struggle unique, any unique solutions must accordingly address these factors. While the age at which adults enter higher education remains largely unchanged, the money required to do so continues to rise. To reduce the stress of student debt, we must reduce the cost of obtaining a higher education and / or guarantee the earnings of students as they graduate in order to give them the confidence that they will be able to pay their debt off successfully.