Editor’s note: for our most recent survey findings on the burden of student loan debt on mental health, see our 2021 survey results here. The following study represents analysis we performed in 2019.
Student loan borrowers often feel “the weight of debt.” Having to repay an exorbitant sum of money can also make them feel trapped and stuck in an unfulfilling job and even lead to physical and mental health problems.
But we found these feelings run much deeper than that. For Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we surveyed our community and found a link between student debt and depression.
Note that our readership is much more likely to have six figures of debt and have a graduate degree. This makes the survey an excellent reflection of mental health among the population of borrowers with the largest student debt burdens.
We got into the nitty-gritty around student loan debt and mental health and the toll it takes. In a survey of 829 people from the Student Loan Planner® email list, we uncovered staggering data about debt, student loan depression and suicide.
Please note: The following may contain triggering or sensitive information about depression, anxiety and suicide.
- One in 15 student loan borrowers surveyed have considered suicide due to their student loans.
- One in 12 Californians and one in 9 Floridians surveyed have considered suicide due to their student loan debt. In contrast, one in 58 New Yorkers and one in 41 Illinois residents have considered suicide due to student debt.
- 53% of high debt student loan borrowers have experienced depression because of their debt.
- Nine in 10 borrowers experienced significant anxiety due to the their loan burden.
- The survey data suggested one in 11 deaths by suicide among young professionals were partly due to student loans. We asked the question of respondents who knew someone who died by suicide if they believed student loans played the primary or a significant role in the decision.
- Among respondents surveyed, dentists considered suicide at higher rates than other professions.
“If you want to have a good life, you get an education. It has to be college…There’s an unspoken promise that if you follow this plan, the golden doors will open; everything will be fine,” said Kristine Motlagh, a clinical psychologist with $300,000 in student loans.
There’s a sense that borrowers were sold a formula of success (attending college and accumulating debt) that turned out to be a facade.
“No one can guarantee you that an education will lead to a certain lifestyle. What do you do if you have to change the trajectory of your life because of your student loans?” Motlagh said.
Currently, there are 44 million student loan borrowers who owe a total of 1.5 trillion dollars. Student loan borrowers are feeling the pinch of debt as they deal with stagnant wages and higher costs of education.
As borrowers face the consequences of taking out so much student loan debt, the evidence shows an undeniable impact on borrower’s mental health. The financial burden is deep and the depression symptoms are real.
Suicide and student loans
It’s clear that student loan debt can affect a borrower’s mental health. In some cases, this can lead to depression but especially student loan anxiety.
These might be day-to-day symptoms of the problem that lead to higher stress levels. But some borrowers feel helpless and like they’re running out of options, without enough money to pay down debt and get by.
“The feeling of hopelessness gets you into a place where you feel like you can’t recover,” said Motlagh, on how student loan debt can affect mental health.
This feeling of hopelessness can lead to suicidal ideation, where one believes that’s the only way out. Our survey showed one in 15 survey respondents considered suicide due to their student loans.
As the amount of debt a borrower owes increases, so does their likelihood of considering suicide.
We found one in 9 borrowers who owe $80,000 to $150,000 in student loan debt considered suicide because of their debt.
However, what’s interesting is that this middle ground is the apex, serving as the highest amount of borrowers who feel this way, even though we surveyed borrowers with up to $600,000.
Why is the Middle Part of the High Student Debt Range at Greatest Risk of Suicide?
Our theory is that borrowers in this middle ground are feeling the payments harder. Why? Because of their debt-to-income ratio.
For example, on an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), everyone pays the same percentage after the deduction of 150% of the federal poverty line.
That is, until a high income borrower decides to refinance her loans because she can get a better deal with a private lender. Then the percent of income going to debt actually goes down.
Our survey results seem to reflect the reality that middle income borrowers lose a large percentage of their income to student debt under income driven repayment plans. In contrast, very poor and very well off borrowers lose a significantly lower percentage of their income.
Annual Payment on $150k of Debt
(PAYE then refinance at 5%)
Percentage of Income Going to Student Loans
Suicide by profession
From a professional standpoint, dentists were most likely to consider suicide among professions with at least 40 respondents. Veterinarians and lawyers were at higher risk of suicide as well.
Even though other data suggests that physicians have a high rate of suicide compared to the national average and general population, our survey did not pick up on that finding quite as much.
What’s interesting is 58% of respondents felt that symptoms of depression and suicide were higher in their profession compared to other fields.
Our survey was comprised of a wide range of young professionals, from dentists to doctors, social workers and lawyers, teachers and veterinarians, architects, nurses and more.
Aside from personal experiences, one out of 17 survey respondents knew someone who died by suicide in part due to student loan debt.
Student debt and depression and anxiety
In our mental health survey, we asked respondents if they’ve ever experienced depression or anxiety because of their student loans. Our data found that more than half (53%) of respondents had experienced student loan depression due to their debt. Student debt and depression can go hand in hand.
Depression is often a feeling of deep melancholy you just can’t shake. More than just “having the blues” or fleeting moments of sadness, depression can be long term and affect someone’s mental and physical well-being.
Though our respondents noted high instances of depression, the majority of respondents — a whopping 90% — experienced student loan anxiety around their education debt as one of the top mental-health issues.
Anxiety can be part of deep-rooted fears and a feeling of worry that’s always buzzing in the background.
Our borrowers noted a feeling of uncertainty, especially surrounding student loan forgiveness options like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Given that the first cohort of borrowers eligible for the program had an abysmally low 1% acceptance rate, it’s no wonder student loan borrowers feel a lack of control, as if their fate is out of their hands.
“Most of my anxiety is over being in debt for a long time and from the uncertainty of whether the PSLF program will stay intact long enough for me to utilize it, or if I will be able to get a job that qualifies for long enough,” said Rachelle, a California-based environmental scientist with an Ivy League degree. “I have had a very hard time getting proper employment.”
There is uncertainty surrounding student loan forgiveness programs. There’s also stress about finding a job that can actually lead to paying off debt. These factors lead borrowers to an anxiety-riddled life, wondering about an unclear future.
As you can see, our data shows there can be a cause and effect impact between debt and depression. Debt and anxiety is something that can’t be ignored.
There are a multitude of factors that have a negative impact on a borrower’s mental health. We know debt can lead to depression and anxiety, but what exactly is it that makes borrowers feel this way?
The top factor affecting mental health from our survey was burnout (43%). Thirteen percent of borrowers said the interest on their loans, which seems never-ending, is their top concern.
Another 12% said the student loan payments themselves contributed to feelings of depression and anxiety, while another 12% said feeling stuck in a job they don’t like because of student loan payments was a factor.
Seven percent of respondents said dealing with customers and/or patients affect their mental health negatively, while 3% feel they don’t have support at work.
Four percent stated it was not applicable. Seven percent stated “other” and contributed their own responses.
Some of the other contributing factors included:
- Low salary
- Competitive job market
- Worries about how student loans affect buying a house, having children and more.
In other words, there are a multitude of factors that affect mental health, not just financial strain.
Student loan stress: reaching out for help
Talking about debt is seen as taboo, and discussing mental health is even more so. These two topics create a culture of secrecy and shame, yet so many people are deeply affected by them. When dealing with intense emotions such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, it’s crucial to reach out for help.
When asked if there’s anything holding back our respondents from getting help, the responses varied. Though 40% of the respondents stated they didn’t need help, some cited time as the top barrier.
More than 1 in 4 respondents stated they were too busy or didn’t have enough time. Twelve percent of respondents included various obstacles, such as paying for counseling and difficulty asking for help. Six percent of borrowers stated that the stigma around mental health prevented them from reaching out.
Eleven percent of borrowers said they don’t know where to find resources, and 3% noted lack of personal relationships.
Our data shows there are various reasons student loan borrowers aren’t reaching out for help. Barriers to entry include:
- Paying for counseling
- Lack of community
- Lack of time and resources
- Feeling as if there’s a stigma surrounding “needing help”
But if there’s anything these findings show, it’s shedding light on how you’re absolutely not alone. You are not a loan.
Let’s break down barriers and the stigma related to student loan depression and suicide, and start the conversation by saying, “It’s okay to not be okay.” We encourage you to reach out and get the help you need because debt should never be a death sentence.
“It’s important if you’re having any type of issue that you do seek out professional support,” said Motlagh. “We can have friends and family, which is necessary, but there is a time and place where professional help can make all the difference.”
Mental health resources
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please text HELLO to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor at the Crisis Text Line. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you need affordable therapy options, reach out to:
- Open Path Collective
- Talk Space
- Your local school’s graduate counseling program
- Church or other community programs
To help manage student debt and depression:
- Consider an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. This reduces your monthly payment. You’ll only pay 10% to 20% of your discretionary income, and you may qualify for $0 payments if your income is very low.
- Look into deferment and forbearance. If your monthly payments are paralyzing, you can temporarily put them on pause through deferment and forbearance. Talk to your servicer to see which option you qualify for.
- Apply for student loan forgiveness. Your federal student loans can be forgiven through Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program or IDR plans. After meeting each program’s respective repayment terms, your remaining loans are forgiven.
If you’re in default, get your loans in good standing ASAP. You can get out of default through student loan rehabilitation or consolidation.
You can also check out Debtors Anonymous meetings, a 12-step program for people who feel consumed and powerless with debt.
Whatever type of loan you have whether federal or private student loans, there are other routes to consider. Of course, these are not for everyone, so explore if it makes sense for you.
- Move abroad. Take advantage of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) and pay nothing while remaining in good standing on your loans.
- Loan discharge via bankruptcy. Though not ideal — and often very rare — you may be able to discharge your loans through bankruptcy. You can look for a bankruptcy attorney who has experience in this area.
- Downsize your living arrangements. If you’re brave, and your living and relationship dynamics afford it, you could live out of your car rent-free.
- Adjust your tax withholding. If you get a big tax refund each year, adjust your tax withholding so you get more in your paycheck each month to help with student loan payments.
- You can also try to switch jobs and negotiate for student loan reimbursement or student loan assistance at your new job as part of the benefits package.
You can also reach out to us at Student Loan Planner® to get assistance on how to manage your student loans.
The most important part is reaching out for help. There is no shame in doing so and there are resources to support you. Don’t give up and know that you aren’t alone.
We surveyed 829 people from the Student Loan Planner email list. Ninety percent of respondents were between the ages of 20 and 39. Seventy percent of respondents had between $100k to $500k in student loan debt, and included 66% females and 33% males.