As college debt stacks up for a greater number of Americans, researchers and advocates say they are seeing increased mental health challenges among some borrowers crippled by the financial burden.
“A lot of times people feel like the walls are moving in on them and there’s no out. We have people who are significantly stressed by their financial situation and we have had people in the past who have said they’ve had those thoughts before, of suicide. That’s definitely a reality,” said Brad O’Brien, financial education manager at GreenPath Financial Wellness, a national nonprofit that helps people who have debt, including student loans.
“Your finances are tied to your life, your ability to have safe and affordable housing and to be able to support your kids,” O’Brien said. “That’s where the stress really starts to play into how people get really desperate.”
In Wisconsin, there are about 1 million people who together hold more than $19 billion in student loan debt, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education, the country’s largest student lender. The average Wisconsin borrower holds $29,460 in student debt, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.
Total student loan debt reached $1.44 trillion this year, held by 44.2 million borrowers nationwide, according to federal government figures.
Several research studies published in psychological and medical peer-reviewed research journals indicate that financial stress can be a factor in suicide and depression, but the cause-and-effect relationship is unproven. A 2011 study in the journal Psychological Medicine found that the number of debts and reasons for debt correlate to suicidal ideation. Researchers found that people who struggle to repay their debt may need debt counseling or psychiatric evaluations.
The Cap Times conducted a survey last fall asking Wisconsin borrowers about their student debt. Of the 807 people who responded, 29.8 percent ranked themselves a “4” on a scale of 1-5 about the concern over their loans, with 5 being “terrified.” Sixteen percent ranked themselves a “5.” Borrowers who took the survey said they often feel alone in trying to deal with their debt and generally don’t talk about it.
During November and December last year, GreenPath conducted a survey of 152 clients nationwide who had student loans. Of the group, 82 percent said they felt stressed about their loans and 72 percent said it was affecting their ability to sleep.
Fewer research studies have focused on student debt specifically, though university-based researchers say that more schools are trying to monitor how the cost of college and debt affects students and their choices.
Cliff Robb, an associate professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies how people make financial decisions and facilitates efforts on campus to talk to students about how they handle money.
While he notes that he is not a psychologist trained to diagnose mental illnesses, he said he sees a link between student loan burdens and stress among college students.
“As that debt is becoming more and more pervasive and large, it’s adding additional stressors to people at a stage in life when there are a lot of things going on. There is a lot of change, habits are being established, you’re adding this extra burden at a tough time, especially when you consider the transition period after college,” Robb said.
There is no conclusive information on how student debt affects the mental health of students, in part because the dynamic is ongoing, Robb said.
“I would hazard to guess that it’s an unprecedented cost on young individuals that could have implications down the road,” he said. “You get to your starting-off point of adulthood and you’re already so far behind the starting line given that you come out (of school) with this burden.”
Debt levels have risen just as tuition has, making it difficult to cull data from any one period of time and draw conclusions.
“I certainly think mental health is a critical issue. To me, what’s interesting is that we’re almost at a point where we’re kind of in the middle of it and it’s harder to look at really good data on all of these effects. The student debt environment has really undergone pretty big transitions,” Robb said.
Though UW-Madison, along with other universities, is trying to create programs to educate students about their finances and the ramifications of taking out loans, there is no effective way to measure whether they are working, Robb said.
“I think there’s a lot more resources today than there were 10 years ago but … what we really lack is data or clear proof of some of these on-campus programs having viable impacts,” he said.
Student loan offices on campus are far more mindful now than they have been, but Robb said he still sees a significant gap between the decisions students make and understanding their future cost.
“A huge amount (of decision-making) is based on a present-future trade off,” Robb said. He said in his research he has found that students have trouble fully grasping the future implications of their behavior in the present because their future selves seem hazy and distant.
Attorneys who work with borrowers and their parents say it is not uncommon to hear desperation and sometimes suicidal comments from clients.
“I certainly have dealt with clients who have expressed to me those types of feelings,” said Adam Minsky, a student loan attorney in Boston who represents borrowers in court who are having trouble paying their loans. “It’s not uncommon.”
Carrie Wofford is president of Veterans Education Success, a D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks how the GI Bill is being used by veterans to attend college and monitors for-profit schools that market to them. She works with students who are military veterans and said she has seen crushing student debt take a severe toll.
“We do know that student debt can be excessive and crippling — and cause emotional harm,” she said in an email. “Some of the veterans we counsel have expressed suicidal feelings.”
In 2012, a two-year U.S. Senate investigation found that for-profit colleges and universities were targeting veterans with deceptive and sometimes fraudulent recruiting, knowing that veterans have access to a stream of money from the GI Bill.
Costs at for-profit colleges often exceed that resource, however, resulting in debt for a degree that may not be helpful, according to the group.
The group offers a phone help line and other counseling resources for veterans who might be struggling with debt.
“Imagine being told your GI Bill would cover everything and the degree was accredited, and then you find out too late that you have $80,000 in loans you never signed up for and the degree is unaccredited, so you can't transfer the credits anywhere,” Wofford said. “Some of the debt that veterans incur at for-profit colleges, on top of using up their GI Bill, are incredibly high — even up to $160,000. It's insane. So yes, that kind of debt can leave someone feeling their life is ruined.”
Dialogue can help those feelings, O’Brien said, noting that professional support is also needed. He said GreenPath trains employees about how to respond to suicidal clients and steer them toward professional medical help.
“When you get a window into what someone else is experiencing, that’s a big part of what needs to happen,” O’Brien said. “We’re human and we make decisions with the information in front of us. Sometimes that goes well and sometimes it doesn’t.”
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