For Many Borrowers, Student Loans Are a Mental Health Crisis

2021 Mental Health Survey: 1 in 14 High-Debt Student Loan Borrowers Had Suicidal Ideation

For Many Borrowers, Student Loans Are a Mental Health Crisis

Over the past year, nearly everyone has experienced mental health challenges due to the pandemic. The isolation, grief, anxiety, depression and looming fear were ever present. On top of that, there was uncertainty, loss of income and precarious financial situations. 

Even with financial help from the CARES Act — which froze student loan payments and slashed interest rates to 0% — people are still feeling the heavy burden of debt. 

Our March 2021 mental health survey of over 2,300 high debt student loan borrowers found that 1 in 14 respondents experienced suicidal ideation at some point during their repayment journey.

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Of those reporting having had suicidal thoughts at some point due to student debt, half of that group reported that they had felt that way in the past year despite unprecedented student loan payment and interest relief.

Suicidal ideation due to student debt increased from our 2019 mental health survey, which found that 1 in 15 people felt suicidal at some point over their student debt, which is alarming given the student loan relief offered in the past year along with the looming restart of payments for millions of borrowers in September. 

Key findings 

  • 1 in 14 survey respondents had suicidal ideation at some point due to student loan debt
  • Debt-to-income ratio is the main factor for mental health struggles due to student loans
  • Respondents who owed more than two times what they earned were 2.5x more ly to experience suicidal ideation compared to borrowers who owed less than their earnings 
  • 1 in 8 single women who owe more than twice their income had suicidal ideation due to student loans 
  • For single women earning less than $50,000, suicidal ideation rose to 1 in 6 respondents 
  • Enrollment in generous forgiveness programs such as PSLF did not seem to reduce the risk of suicidal ideation due to debt. 
  • 1 in 8 unemployed borrowers and those earning $50,000 or less experienced suicidal ideation due to student loans 
  • Six-figure earners with student debt balances greater than 2x their earnings experienced a spike in suicidal ideation from 4% to 8%

What we found is that putting payments on hold or eliminating interest for a period of time was not the magic solution to alleviate student loan stress. Though respondents’ stress around student loan debt went down this past year due to the freeze, the mental health toll is still significant. 

“I am constantly thinking about student loans and how much I have. It drives my every decision from how often I go to the grocery store to if I can afford to visit my family for the month,” reported one respondent. 

The Most Dangerous Statistic: Your Debt-to-income (DTI) Ratio 

When looking at the data, it’s clear there’s one major risk factor for suicidal ideation due to student loan debt. DTI ratios heavily impacted the lihood that a borrower would entertain thoughts of harming themselves because of their debt burden. 

A DTI ratio illustrates how much of your income goes toward debt and is measured by taking your student debt divided by your income.

A ratio above 2-to-1 makes it extremely difficult to pay back debt using traditional methods, whereas a ratio below 1-to-1 is easier to pay back.

Even a high income doesn’t wash away the mental health woes, as those making six-figures may owe six figures of debt too. 

For borrowers with a DTI of less than one, meaning they owed less than they earned, 1 in 26 people experienced suicidal ideation. But when debt crept up, suicidal ideation skyrocketed. 

For respondents who had a DTI between 1 and 2, 1 in 15 experienced suicidal ideation. For those who had a DTI greater than two, 1 in 11 experienced suicidal ideation due to student debt. 

We also noticed that once respondents owed more than they earned, they reported higher levels of hopelessness and depression due to student loan debt. 

There seems to be significant wisdom in the rule of thumb that you should be careful about attending a degree program where you’ll owe more in student debt than you’ll earn. Unfortunately due to student loan policy and the explosion of the cost of education, owing more than you earn is the new norm for many borrowers.

Source: March 2021 Student Loan Planner® Mental Health Survey

Generous Forgiveness Programs Did Almost Nothing to Help the Mental Health Burden of Student Debt

In theory, putting payments and interest on hold, and offering forgiveness through Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) would help ease the worries or borrowers. But our survey revealed that this isn’t the reality for many high-debt borrowers. 

There was no discernable difference in suicidal ideation from people who were pursuing PSLF from those who are not. We found 1 in 15 people pursuing PSLF expressed suicidal ideation. Another 1 in 15 who are not pursuing PSLF also expressed suicidal ideation. So in other words, a forgiveness plan with strings attached related to career isn’t the answer. 

The number of respondents who experienced ideation increased to 1 in 11 if they were unsure of what repayment plan they were using. Knowing what you’re doing with your student debt by no means eliminates the mental health risk. However, not having a plan at all is worse. 

As it relates to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), there’s a 10-year commitment to work in public service. One common sentiment expressed throughout the survey is a feeling of being trapped in a job or career. 

High-debt borrowers who are pursuing PSLF might feel their only escape is sticking with a job or field for 10 years to get student loan forgiveness. Un income-driven repayment, PSLF borrowers get student loans forgiven, tax-free. But the mental health cost is high, especially for those with unruly debt amounts. 

For PSLF borrowers, 10% of those who owed double their income or more reported suicidal ideation due to student loans. Only 2.7% of PSLF borrowers who owed less than they earned reported feeling that way at some point.

That makes no logical sense, as PSLF forgives a person’s debt completely tax-free. Additionally, the payments are the exact same regardless of the size of your debt amount. This is perhaps some of the best evidence present in this survey of the true psychological burden of a debt that makes you feel you don’t have options.

One respondent put it succinctly,

“Student Loans make me feel my life isn’t my own. A time that should be filled with excitement and new experiences is instead filled with dread and uncertainty.”

Student Debt Weighed Heavier on Women 

When it comes to student loan debt and suicidal ideation, it’s clear that it’s a women’s issue. Our data found that 1 in 18 men experience suicidal ideation due to student loans. For women, that risk increases to 1 in 13. 

Relationship status also has a greater effect on the lihood of women experiencing suicidal ideation, compared to men. In fact, suicidal ideation was 62% higher for single women than it was for married women. 

For single women, who owed less than what they earned, 1 in 30 experienced suicidal ideation. Given the DTI effect, that number jumped to 1 in 8 for single women who owed more than twice their income.

Women already earn less thanks to the gender pay gap and are also pursuing education at higher rates than men. One could hypothesize that women are more ly to owe more as well as earn less while pursuing the same degree, which adds to the debt-to-income ratio evidence of the mental health danger of student loan debt.  

We see the same DTI affect for high-earning single women as well. For single women earning six figures, 1 in 17 considered suicide at some point, because of student loan debt. 

But for single women earning less than $50,000 per year? A whopping 1 in 6 single women considered suicide, due to the weight of student loans. 

Regardless of income, student debt weighs heavily when it comes to making big life decisions and navigating life stages. 

One woman stated that she had,

“Constant anxiety about affording things and hesitation for major life experiences. Such as having a child, buying a house, buying a car, buying my own practice, or having a wedding. Half my six figure income goes to student loan debt and will be for the next 23 years.”

Another respondent echoed the same sentiments,

“My federal student loans total nearly 5x my annual salary now and have only grown while I’ve made 5+ years of qualified, on-time payments. This seemingly insurmountable financial burden is something that continues to be extremely challenging to navigate some of life’s bigger milestones: home ownership, starting a family, retirement, etc.”

Lack of income or lower income is a contributing factor 

Relatively low or nonexistent income resulted in higher rates of mental health struggles and suicidal ideation. We found that borrowers who lost income completely, those faced with unemployment, experienced higher instances of suicidal ideation. 

1 in 8 respondents who were unemployed or earning less than $50,000 experienced suicidal ideation due to student loan debt. Among respondents making six figures, suicidal ideation doubled from 4% to 8% if they owed two times or more compared to their earnings. 

Income isn’t an automatic fix. Our survey data shows that 1 in 17 respondents who had their income rise this past year still experienced suicidal thoughts from student loans.

Any way you look at this data, your debt-to-income ratio is a hazard to your mental health.  

Policy changes that could lessen the mental health crisis around student loans 

As we’ve navigated the COVID-19 crisis this past year and see signs of hope and recovery, it’s clear that the student loan crisis isn’t going away. 

Despite a payment freeze and 0% interest rates for approximately 18 months, the share of borrowers reporting suicidal ideation due to student loans in 2021 increased in the past two years since we first launched this mental health survey in 2019. 

That’s alarming, and there are no easy fixes. That said, solutions ly need to focus on lowering the current and future debt-to-income ratios of borrowers. Here are some that could be considered:

  • Instituting caps on how much tuition a school can charge
  • Student loan cancellation, particularly for the lowest income borrowers facing the most economic hardship
  • Bankruptcy protections allowing borrowers in the worst financial situations a way out
  • Changing or capping borrowing limits
  • Surgeon General’s warning about the risk to mental health from significant student debt burdens
  • Civil penalties for institutions that intentionally misstate student outcomes in order to increase enrollment
  • Reduction or elimination of federal financial aid for schools whose graduates consistently have high debt-to-income ratios

From 2007 to 2017, the cost of public universities increased by 31%. Stagnant wages and soaring debt are only adding to the mental health crisis related to student loans, making people feel trapped.

Loan cancellation could have sweeping mental health and economic benefits and provide relief after a tough year full of anxiety. However, while 85% of the respondents in this survey supported at least some student debt cancellation, only 32% supported cancelling all of it.

Borrowers want to be able to invest in their education, better themselves and their families, and not have student debt hold them back.

Student loan debt and the risk it poses to mental health is a significant public health risk. Hopefully policymakers will try to make meaningful change rather than just put a band-aid on a problem that continues to get worse.


Student Loan Debt Is Bad For Mental Health, And These Stats Prove it

For Many Borrowers, Student Loans Are a Mental Health Crisis

It’s no wonder the country’s $1.5 trillion in collective student loan debt is being called a crisis. Young borrowers are delaying major life milestones such as buying homes and starting families because of the financial burden of their loans. A million borrowers default on their loans every year.

But there’s another equally damaging consequence of student loan debt that’s talked about less often: its impact on borrowers’ mental health. That’s certainly not something that’s discussed with 18-year-olds as they prepare to sign the dotted line on a 10-year loan.

Debt-Induced Depression

Just ask Sophia Buxton. At its peak, her debt was close to $150,000 in student loans, mostly from private lenders. “This was well beyond what I originally financed because I accrued so much interest in my first couple of years school due to forbearance and interest-only payments,” she said.

The debt’s effect on her mental health became severe. “I allowed this period of my life to rob me of years due to severe depression,” Buxton said. Underemployed with multiple jobs, living at home with her parents and sometimes unable to make ends meet, she relied on credit cards to cover daily expenses. And she defaulted on one of her loans.

“I felt I would never get the financial hole, so what was the point in trying? I allowed my debt to let me think that I was unlovable, unworthy of marriage, children, happiness, travel, etc. … In my mind, it was easier to just end it all,” she said.

Fortunately, Buxton sought treatment for her depression. She also eventually refinanced her loans, opened up about her struggle, and has been making progress on paying down her debt.

“I felt I would never get the financial hole, so what was the point in trying?”

— Sophia Buxton

Anyone who has shouldered the burden of six-figure student loan debt knows the heavy toll it can take. “Waking up every day to work a job knowing that 80 to 90 percent of your net pay is going directly to student loan debt is a unique monster,” Buxton said. “My depression also fooled me into thinking that I was completely alone in this struggle.”

The truth is, Buxton is far from alone. Millions of student loan borrowers face stress, depression and other mental health concerns due to the pressure their debt places on them. Some research, the bulk of which is performed by financial companies that offer product solutions, has examined what those effects look .

Here are seven statistics that prove just how harmful student debt can be.

1 in 10

This is how many people say student loans are their top worry. A new survey from Stash found that of respondents who said money is a source of stress, about 10% named student loans as their No. 1 stressor.


The percentage of student loan borrowers who lose sleep at night due to stressing over how they are going to repay their student loans. That’s according to a survey by Student Loan Hero that polled more than 1,000 student loan borrowers.


The percentage of borrowers who reported having physical symptoms of anxiety due to the stress from their student loan debt, according to the same Student Loan Hero study. Symptoms included headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach, rapid heartbeat, fatigue and more.

1 in 15

The number of borrowers with a high debt load who have considered suicide because of it, according to a survey by financial coaching company Student Loan Planner of its existing email subscribers. The survey said 70% of respondents had between $100,000 and $500,000 in student loan debt and that 90% were between the ages of 20 and 39.


Percentage of working professionals with student loan debt who said it is a source of “significant” or “very significant” stress, according to research commissioned by Gradifi.


The percentage of student loan borrowers who say student loan debt has interfered with self-care purchasing health insurance and gym memberships, according to a survey by financial services company SoFi. The survey, which polled 1,200 SoFi customers, also found that 15% of respondents have sought a mental health professional to deal with the stress of their student debt.


The amount of college debt that causes borrowers to have lower well-being. A Gallup poll found that Americans who graduated from college between 1990 and 2014 and borrowed $50,000 or more weren’t as ly as their college debt-free peers to thrive in four elements of well-being: purpose, financial well-being, community, and physical well-being.

Millions of student loan borrowers face stress, depression and other mental health concerns due to the pressure their debt places on them.

Don’t Give Up

Buxton’s debt situation took a dark turn, and for years, it seemed she had no way out. But that wasn’t the case.

With the help of therapy, financial education and a good friend to push her along, Buxton was able to turn her situation around. “Over the past few years, I’ve completely restored my credit, moved out on my own, bought a car and tripled my income since my first job post-grad school,” she said. “I’m obsessed with my monthly budget and even invested a few bucks in my Robinhood app.”

It was a long, tough road to get to this point. And now that she can look back on her journey with a new perspective, Buxton has a few words of advice for others who might be struggling to balance student loan debt and mental health.

Know you aren’t alone. Experiencing anxiety, depression or stress as a result of your unmanageable debt can feel a lonely situation. Everyone’s story is unique, but there’s a large community of people who are in a similar situation. You’re far from the only one.

It’s OK to talk about your debt. Mental health is often a taboo subject ― and so is money. But keeping these issues to yourself only makes the problem worse.

“Let’s break down the shame so we have a baseline to build upon and stay encouraged,” Buxton said. It’s important to talk about your struggle, whether that’s with a therapist or a trusted confidant.

“Also, it helps to let your friends know so they aren’t inviting you to brunch every weekend,” she added.

Talk about your salary, too. Buxton said openly discussing your salary, especially with people in your same field, is key to equity. “The more we share openly, the more we can use our collective information to help each other the hole by first earning fair and equitable wages.”

Be kind to yourself. Finally, work on finding the balance between paying off your debt but also living a good life. “We are not on this earth for a long time, so make sure it’s a good time,” Buxton said.

Of course, that doesn’t mean spending recklessly. Instead, treat yourself to a small purchase every now and then, and set bigger rewards for when you reach certain financial goals.

“Climbing the mountain is not nearly as satisfying if you don’t take breaks to enjoy the view.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.


Facing up to debt

For Many Borrowers, Student Loans Are a Mental Health Crisis

Though she grew up poor, counseling psychology student Karen* never felt particularly worried about money until this year. Now, the sight of a credit card or tuition bill can give her cold sweats, and she holds her breath every time a cashier swipes her credit card, fearing it will be declined.

«I am taking out the maximum amount of loans and still working two jobs to cover the bills,» Karen says. Her credit card debt as a result of a semester spent abroad during her undergraduate years doesn't help matters. «I feel shame and anxiety any time I think about money.»

Karen's financial anxieties are all too familiar among psychology graduate students.

APA's latest survey of doctoral graduates, completed in 2011, revealed that more than two-thirds of all students took out loans during their education, with the median amount of debt ranging from $30,000 for psychology research PhDs to $80,000 for students in health service professions.

PsyD students graduate with a median debt of $120,000. These amounts have increased substantially over the past 15 years; in 1997, health service professional students graduated with a median of $40,000 of debt, and research students with around $20,000.

Psychology graduate students aren't alone on top of their mountain of debt — it's a trend for students in general, according to a report released in October by the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. College students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in 2011 left school with the largest average student debt load in history — $26,600, a 5 percent increase from $25,250 in 2010.

While debt is increasingly common, many grad students feel isolated by the shame of being in the red, and that keeps them from having honest conversations about it. Many students say they prefer «just not to think about it» because adding money stress to their academic stress is overwhelming.

While that's an understandable reaction, research shows that hiding from debt can be associated with bad financial decision-making and mental health problems.

Financial experts and early career psychologists who have overcome their struggles with debt say students need to get real about the debt they are taking on, and tout the benefits of taking a more clear-eyed view of things.

«A lot of psychologists end up running businesses at some point in their careers, so we really have to fight the tendency to be in denial about money,» says financial psychologist Brad Klontz, PsyD, author of the 2009 book «Mind Over Money.» «We need to come school already prepared to take care of ourselves financially.»

The psychology of debt

Nearly 64 percent of psychology graduate students report that concern over finances and debt interferes with their optimal functioning, according to a May 2012 study in Training and Education in Professional Psychology (PDF, 106KB).

The research, which included a survey of 438 students enrolled in psychology graduate programs, found that money concerns ranked second in student stressors, just under academic responsibilities.

Shame/guilt and denial about problems also made the list.

These money concerns don't end once you have that doctoral degree in hand, and in some cases, they can get worse.

Early career psychologist Darin Arsenault, PhD, for example, took on more than $170,000 in student loans while pursuing two master's degrees and a doctorate in clinical psychology at Alliant International University.

«I make large payments automatically each month, I have my loans consolidated, but I will still ly pay until I die,» Arsenault says. «Once a year, I really look at my debt and what I have paid off and how much of it goes to interest, and it's all a bit depressing.»

One reason psychology students may struggle with financial issues is that money is often considered a taboo topic in the psychology profession, finds a study led by Klontz and reported in the November 2012 issue of The Journal of Financial Planning.

Klontz used a professional listserv as well as online social networks to survey 422 financial planners, coaches, mental health providers and the public about their beliefs and behaviors around money.

He found that mental health professionals tend to believe that money corrupts people and that it's not OK to have more of it than you need.

«These beliefs start in graduate school, where there's this sense that as psychologists, we are here to help people, and if you want to make money, you're in the wrong profession,» Klontz says. «So, for a lot of trainees and graduate students, it becomes really tough to transition from giving away therapy for free, which is what you do as a grad student, to charging for it.»

These types of beliefs can drive psychology graduate students and other mental health providers into «financial denial,» which often manifests itself in behaviors such as not sticking to a budget, not opening bank statements and generally not paying attention to money, he says.

But that kind of attitude can get students into even more trouble — both financially and emotionally, according to two studies led by John Gathergood, PhD, an economics professor at the University of Nottingham.

In a survey of more than 3,000 households in the United Kingdom, Gathergood found that misunderstanding debt and being financially illiterate led to the accrual of even more debt due to poor financial decision-making (Journal of Economic Psychology, June 2012).

In a separate survey of 10,000 people in the United Kingdom, Gathergood found that those who struggle to pay off their loans are more than twice as ly to experience a host of mental health problems, including depression and severe anxiety (The Economic Journal, September 2012).

Yet in parts of the country where bankruptcy and repossession are more common, the effect of debt on people's mental health diminishes due to social norms, Gathergood says.

«The social stigma and psychological effects are reduced because people have more support from friends who are in the same scenario,» he says.

So, while students may find comfort in the fact that many of their peers share the same financial burden, it won't help them make their student loan payments after graduating.

Just ask clinical psychologist Andrea Bradford, PhD, who is on the faculty at a large academic medical center.

Despite pursuing a research career throughout her training, Bradford says she opted for a more clinically focused position for income stability, and to help her pay off her student loan debt.

As a first-generation college student with no clear frame of reference about how to pay for higher education, Bradford says she wore blinders at certain times during graduate school.

«I wish I had made some different choices in paying for my education along the way,» she says.

She admits that, while some of her debt is unavoidable, she owes more than she would have had she been better about forecasting her financial needs and sticking to a strict budget.

Taking control

The growing burden of student loan debt isn't just a personal failing, however. In many ways, the whole system is set up to encourage students to incur massive debt.

Early career psychologist Tara Polson, PsyD, says that every year when she went to refile her student loan paperwork, she was reminded by her school's financial aid office that the education — not the money — was most important.

«At the time, I agreed, and just thought the loans would work themselves out,» she recalls.

In addition, many colleges have moved away from a cash economy on campus, which can often lead to overspending, says Terrell Hayes, PhD, a sociology professor at High Point University who has studied the stigma of debt.

«Everything is paid for with a student debit card, so you have students spending money left and right on things in the bookstore or at the coffee shops and they really have no idea how much money they're spending,» Hayes says.

What can students do to address the psychological burden of debt — not just the financial one? First, come clean about it to family, friends and significant others, says Polson. Doing so may force you to sit down, stop the denial game and make a plan for paying it off.

If you're still in school, it's also a good idea at the beginning of every semester to ask yourself how much money you really need, says Bradford. «It's easy to just check the box on your student loan paperwork and get the full amount each semester, but I wish I'd been a little more deliberate in my requests,» she says.

Polson also encourages students to find out from their school's financial aid adviser how much their monthly student loan payments will be after graduation.

Data compiled in 2009 by APA's Center for Workforce Studies show that the median annual full-time starting salary for a doctorate in psychology ranges from $40,000 to $70,000.

If a full-time job in public service is an option, find out more about the federal government's Public Service Loan Repayment/Forgiveness programs, in which borrowers who are employed full time by certain public service employers may qualify for some loan forgiveness after they have made 120 payments.

«It's so important to plan ahead and to start making payments as early as you can, rather than waiting to think about it until after the six-month grace period,» says Polson, who is one year into the 10-year loan forgiveness program, which she hopes will help her pay off her $141,000 in student loan debt.

It's also a good idea for students and early career psychologists to know what their options are in the event they do end up heading toward defaulting on their student loans. In September, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau introduced an online tool to help with student loan repayment.

Students can also seek out certified financial planners if they want more financial help, says Klontz. When evaluating potential planners, ask them how they get paid, he says.

If they mention commission or use the term «fee-based,» you may find that there will be some pressure to buy things from them.

Fee-only planners or those who charge an hourly fee for their time are more ly to provide more objective advice, he says.

Most important, however, students should be realistic about the fact that student loan debt will ly be with them for a long time, Polson says.

«It doesn't just go away. You're going to graduate and you're going to walk across that stage to collect your diploma and walk right into a brick wall of student loan debt.»

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago


Don’t Underestimate the Stress of Student Loan Debt — Therapy Blog

For Many Borrowers, Student Loans Are a Mental Health Crisis

Higher education can open up a wealth of opportunities. A college degree can make it easier to secure a high-paying job and pave the way toward further education, such as graduate school—a necessary step in becoming a therapist or other health care professional. But the potential rewards of a four-year university degree come at a cost, often a staggering one.

College tuition costs have vastly increased over the past few decades.

According to statistics from College Board, a college student in the late 1980s could expect to pay just over $3,000 for 4 years of tuition at a public university.

But today, 4 years of tuition at a public university cost around $10,000. Note this figure only includes tuition, not books, board, and other necessary expenses, which may double or even triple your projected expenses.

Private universities, of course, cost far more. And these numbers rise each year, faster than inflation. This means wage increases don’t account for the higher cost of college, and many students are left with more debt than they can easily (or realistically) pay off.

Student loan debt can certainly impact your financial future, but it can take a toll on your emotional well-being, too.

Student loan debt can certainly impact your financial future, but it can take a toll on your emotional well-being, too.

Student Loan Statistics

While many students seek grants and apply for scholarships to attend college, not everyone qualifies for grants or can afford to spend time chasing down multiple scholarships.

What’s more, plenty of hopeful students find that the cost of college is still prohibitive, even with these other types of aid.

So, lacking the funds to pay for an education, they turn to loans to finance their college years—often without realizing the full cost of these loans.

According to statistics from Pew Research Center, almost half of American adults 30 and younger with a bachelor’s degree or higher have outstanding student loan debt.

But even people who don’t complete their education still have to pay back their loans. Among adults under the age of 30, 34 percent have student loan debt, whether they have a degree to show for it or not.

Among adults aged 30 to 44, 22 percent still have outstanding student loan debt.

The amount of debt varies widely, especially depending on the type of degree pursued. According to 2016 survey results, a median figure for amount owed, among all borrowers, was $17,000.

Among borrowers holding a bachelor’s degree, this figure rose to $25,000, while borrowers with postgraduate degrees reported a median debt of $45,000. About 7 percent of borrowers (or, 1 percent of all American adults) reported owing more than $100,000.

Higher debt appears most common among people holding postgraduate degrees.

This survey also found that almost a third of American adults between the ages of 25 and 40 believe the benefits of their college degree(s) are not worth the lifetime expense of paying it off.

How Debt Affects Current Students

A better understanding of debt’s heavy impact can provide clarity on just why so many students believe the value of their degree doesn’t measure up to the costs incurred.

Not everyone worries about loans coming due while still attending college.

More often, these approaching payments seem a distant concern, one dwarfed by the immediate reality of exams, group projects, and part-time jobs.

Many students also don’t fully comprehend the total amount of the monthly payments they’ll eventually need to make, or the number of years required to completely pay off their loans.

Students with greater awareness of the looming burden of debt may feel intense pressure to study as much as possible and earn good grades. They may hope doing well and graduating with honors will help them find a good job right away and stay on top of loan payments.

While this goal may have merit, it can nonetheless leave them with little time for self-care, rest, and forming relationships and friendships.

Some students may even burn themselves out with volunteer work or participation in activities they hope will appeal to potential employers.

Many students may prefer to avoid thinking about the debt they’ll face. But avoidance doesn’t always help, and it might eventually come out in the form of anxiety and other distress.

It’s also fairly common for students under pressure to neglect their health:

  • Students who have to work while attending college often have less time for restful sleep.
  • Busy students may end up snacking or choosing fast-food or convenience store meals because they don’t have time to prepare more nutritious, balanced meals.
  • Spending the majority of their time studying and working leaves students with little time for physical activity, socializing, or relaxation, important factors in physical and emotional wellness.

These challenges can trigger even more serious concerns. Students under a lot of pressure, especially those who already struggle to adequately meet their physical or emotional needs, may have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

How Student Loan Debt Can Decrease Quality of Life

The significance of the debt burden tends to hit, for many borrowers, once they’ve graduated from college and made it through the 6-month grace period. Some students manage to secure a good job, perhaps one that pays well and offers benefits health insurance. This can help relieve some debt-related anxieties.

In a best-case scenario, someone finds a position in their ideal field, earns promotions, and eventually sees their salary increase over time. The ability to make monthly student loan payments and still have enough money left to live a comfortable life is ideal, but it’s not a common scenario.

Research from the Centre for Global Higher Education suggests student loan debt can have a negative impact on life after graduation in the following ways:

  • Student loan debt can limit career choices by making it necessary to accept any available job in order to make loan payments. This can decrease workplace satisfaction, which can contribute to depression over time.
  • Debt, particularly higher amounts of debt, can lead many women to delay getting married, having children, or both.
  • Many people with student loan debt also delay buying homes. They may also have little or no savings and also lack money for retirement.
  • Not only does student loan debt make it harder to take care of daily financial needs, rent, groceries, and clothing, it can make it almost impossible to budget for needed extras, medical emergencies, car trouble, and so on. For some people, unnecessary expenses—vacations, trips to visit family members, or the occasional dinner out—might be completely the question.
  • Worries over debt often present physically, with symptoms loss of sleep, muscle and head pain, or gastrointestinal distress.

Overall, people with student loan debt report higher levels of anxiety and financial distress, according to a 2013 article published in the American Psychological Association’s gradPSYCH Magazine. The article cites research that suggests people having trouble paying off student loans have almost twice the risk for mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression.

Complicating the issue is the fact that many people avoid talking about debt and other financial worries due to stigma, or fear of stigma. People with high levels of student debt may feel anxious about pursuing relationships, due to concerns about their future financial situation or worries about what their future partners may say about their debt.

Student Loans and Suicide

It’s not uncommon for people with a lot of student loan debt to have a hard time talking about their financial worries. Many people simply struggle to open up about financial issues in general. But others might associate debt with a sense of failure or shame. This can make it difficult to reach out for professional support from therapists or financial counselors.

Avoidance of the problem doesn’t lead to improvement. It often makes the problem worse. Borrowers struggling to pay off student loan debt may come to believe they’ll never get ahead and feel hopeless about their financial future. For many, a bleak financial outlook translates to a bleak outlook overall.

Student Loan Planner, a financial coaching website, surveyed 829 members of their mailing list in 2019. According to their results, one every 15 people paying off student loan debt had considered suicide as a result of their debt. The results also suggested student loan debt plays some part in around 9 percent of deaths among young professionals who die by suicide.

The survey also found evidence to suggest borrowers with higher levels of debt are more ly to consider suicide: Just over 11 percent of borrowers who owe between $80,000 and $150,000 report contemplating suicide.

A final finding: Nearly 6 percent of those who replied to the survey knew someone whose student loan debt factored into their death by suicide.

Student loan debt is a serious concern among American adults. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or distressed by your debt, consider reaching out to a therapist for support. A therapist can’t help you resolve your debt. But they can offer compassion without judgment and help you address related mental health symptoms, enabling you to feel more capable of tackling debt in a productive way.


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  3. Lockert, M. (2019, September 4). Mental health survey: 1 in 15 high student debt borrowers considered suicide. Student Loan Planner. Retrieved from
  4. Maldonaldo, C. (2018, July 24). Price of college increasing almost 8 times faster than wages. Forbes. Retrieved from
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  7. Trends in college pricing 2019. (2019). College Board. Retrieved from
  8. Walsemann, K. M., Gee, G. C., & Gentile, D. (2015). Sick of our loans: Student borrowing and the mental health of young adults in the United States. Social Science & Medicine, 124, 85-93. Retrieved from

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