Student debt has a massive impact on mental health

Published by Josh Wilmer on

Apparently, millennials have never had it so good. Growing up in an age of social media, technological revolution and advancement means everything is at our fingertips, ready for our disposal. We’re taxed less and enjoy more disposable income, we’re more likely to have a pension and receive a better education than ever before.

Despite tuition fees being trebled five years ago and the number of applicants to universities down 5% this year alone, the pressures of finding a job in an economy that is increasingly competitive means a university education remains high on the list of priorities for those aged 16-22. The sense of necessity in going to university means more and more young people are being exposed to the student loan system and with it, all its graces and pitfalls.

For many, university is the great liberating experience, the first step on the long ladder that is life. Moving out for the first time and away from the strains and constraints that parents can pose means financial independence for many. But at what cost?


Since tuition fees were raised in 2012, attention has focused around what this means for the level of debt many students will find themselves in once they graduate and rightly so – an impact study conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that on average, the poorest students who attend university, will graduate with an average debt of £57,000. For those who study longer degrees like medicine or architecture, the debt can rocket towards £100,000. In March, the UK’s student loan debt hit £100bn underlining what many see as a ticking time bomb. Yet little has been made of the impact this debt is having on students while they are on their courses. Even less attention has focused on the impact such a heavy financial burden can have on a young person’s mental health.

In recent years the stigma surrounding mental health has been rapidly disappearing, with celebrities from Stormzy to Cara Delevingne, JK Rowling to David Beckham opening up about their struggles with mental health and while this has encouraged young people to be more openly honest, a culture of denial can still be felt on university campuses across the country.

Critics attest to the exploitative nature of the system and the unprecedented burden it is placing on young people who prior to moving to university, may never have had this level of financial pressure being applied to them. Groundbreaking research conducted both here in the UK by the financial technology company Intelligent Environments and in the US by the University of South Carolina, has linked higher levels of debt accumulated through student loans with a student’s mental health and wellbeing.

According to the UK research, the stresses of accumulating debt had a varied number of consequences. A third of students said their debt impacted their ability to do a weekly food shop while 27% missed rent payments. Many students also found their stress leading to the deterioration of relationships, friendships and even exam results.


It isn’t just tuition fees that are on the rise. Private rent in university towns and cities nationwide is now so expensive that in some cases it is outstripping the maximum financial aid available from the government for students. The cost of living in general is also increasing with many students struggling to get by. The government has already changed maintenance grants to loans, meaning upon graduation, young people are in more debt than ever before.

University conjures up the image for many of hedonistic living, partying, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. For some it’s nothing like they see in the movies. Being frugal has become an essential part of the university life.

Jonny, a 23-year-old graduate in July from King’s College London with a 2:1 in Human Geography. He believes he was immensely lucky to have left with the grade he did, having suffered depression and anxiety for the last year and a half of his degree. He says there were multiple factors in the deterioration of his mental health but one of them was the financial hardship he came to find himself in.

“My loan didn’t come close to funding my accommodation and living costs. I wasn’t naive as to how expensive living in London would be when I first moved down there, but I was still pretty shell-shocked when my first payment for student halls went out of my account.”

While having a job in his first year as a waiter helped shore up his student loan, he had to leave so he could move home for summer. It was only when he returned to his new house in Woolwich in September, that things really started to deteriorate and the pressures of living in the capital hit home. “Everyone always said that the higher rate of student loan you get at uni in London means you’ll have more disposable income. After rent and a half decent food shop, I had about £20-£30 a week to spend and that wouldn’t even cover my travel costs. Nights out became a luxury that I simply couldn’t afford.”


In December 2015, Jonny started to worry more frequently about his finances. His overdraft was maxed out and for the last week of term, he said his diet consisted of Super Noodles and crisps.

“When I came back after Christmas, I saw my loan go in and then disappear again because of rent. I think around February I missed two weeks of uni lectures and seminars because I thought if I didn’t go anywhere, I wouldn’t spend money. I pretty much became a social recluse and seriously considered whether uni was worth the shit I was going through,” he adds.

Although he still has underlying anxiety issues that he says his level of graduate debt, amongst other things has contributed to, the bouts of depression he suffered intermittently throughout his last year have stopped and he feels more confident, something that has also been helped by him moving back home to Sheffield.


Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind says while there are multiple reasons for students experiencing mental health issues, university poses a unique set of challenges.

“People are expecting you to take on the role and responsibilities of an adult, yet you may well have left behind you all the social and organisational structures that you relied on for support.

“Separating from parents and beginning to find your identity as an adult can be challenging. It may be the first time you need to budget, practise housekeeping and find your way around a new place which can be stressful. Studying itself can be demanding and deadlines can cause a lot of anxiety.

“Students also face an unprecedented financial burden with student loan and tuition fee debt higher than ever before. On the other side of this is the financial stress and uncertainty around employment on graduation. Both of these can be contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.”

Jonny went to King’s College’s student counselling service which “was a massive blessing because even though my financial situation couldn’t change, they helped me manage my anxiety a lot better”.

“I started third year having got a 2:2 the previous year. I graduated with a 2:1 and I genuinely believe without being honest with myself and the people around me about my mental state, I’d have left with a crap degree.”

Student counselling services are not the only service available to students. GPs can talk through the available support and even speaking to a friend or family member can help.

If you’re not feeling your normal self to the point where it is impacting your life – preventing you attending lectures, socialising, or even leaving the house – Mind says that’s when it’s time to reach out for support.

*Name changed

This article was originally published on The Overtake.


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