Over the past year, the COVID-19 crisis touched nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s affected our sense of safety, security, and financial well-being. The mental health toll has been significant for everyone, for a myriad of reasons.
But when you add student loans into the mix, our 2021 Mental Health Survey found that the mental health toll has been notably higher for women borrowers.
Higher suicidal ideation
One of the most alarming statistics we found in our recent survey is that 1 in 14 respondents experienced suicidal ideation due to their student loans. This is an increase from 1 in 15 just two years ago in 2019.
When broken down by gender, 1 in 18 men experienced suicidal ideation from student loan debt whereas women experienced suicidal ideation at a much higher rate of 1 in 13.
Relationship status matters
When it comes to mental health management, having a support system is key. That can mean anything from your therapist, friends, family, partner, or community. What we found is that when it came to suicidal ideation around student loan debt, relationship status mattered. In fact, suicidal ideation was more pronounced among single women (1 in 10) versus single men (1 in 20).
That means twice as many women, compared to men, are thinking of suicide due to the overwhelming stress of student loan debt.
Although being single can be a time of self-discovery and empowerment and isn’t a source of shame, it can also mean not having a partner to help out financially, domestically, or emotionally. All of these factors can impact mental health. In a year with rampant isolation and when life milestones like they’re on hold, it makes sense that it would lead to a greater mental health toll.
Debt-to-income ratio is a big factor
Relationship status is just one factor in the equation when analyzing mental health struggles related to debt. What our data found consistently is that borrowers’ debt-to-income ratio played a major role in whether someone experienced suicidal ideation from student debt.
One in eight women who owed more than twice their income considered suicide because of student loans. For example, a single woman earning $80,000 per year, and but owes $200,000 in student loan debt, had a higher likelihood of suicidal ideation.
Even though $80,000 isn’t a bad income when compared to average household income (median household income was $68,703 according to the latest Census data), when your student debt is more than double what you earn, your dollars don’t go as far.
For women earning a relatively low income, the data got even worse. A staggering 1 in 6 single women who earned below $50,000 has dealt with suicidal thoughts because of student loans.
Based on our data, womens’ suicidal ideation went up as they owed more than double their earnings, as well as when they earned less than $50,000. What this shows is that it’s not so much the debt itself that causes the mental health struggle. Instead, the challenge is being unable to easily repay the student debt due to wage stagnation compared to skyrocketing tuition costs at higher education institutions.
So far we’ve examined factors, like relationship status, debt-to-income ratio and low salary when it comes to women experiencing suicidal ideation. Aside from these elements, it’s important to look at the bigger picture for context.
Over the past year, women have been pushed out of the workforce, making impossible choices between work, and becoming caretakers and teachers to children. According to CBS News, three million women have dropped out of the workforce in the past year. This has triggered a “she-cession” with women working less due to the demands of childcare, COVID, and work.
On top of juggling childcare, work, education and household duties, women tend to earn less than their male counterparts due to the gender pay gap. Women also live longer than men and don’t invest their money as often either. These days, women are pursuing higher education at increased rates compared to men, which also adds to the student loan burden.
Plus, according to data from Census.gov, an increased education level doesn’t necessarily mean closing the wage gap. The report found, “Among workers with a bachelor’s degree, women earn 74 cents for every dollar men make, which is less than the 78 cents for workers without the college degree.”
All these factors combined and likely burnout — which is one of the top-cited reasons for suicidal ideation — has resulted in worsening mental health among women.
Loan cancellation might help
The survey data showed that Public Service Loan Forgiveness and the payment freeze didn’t provide much comfort for stressed student loan borrowers. In fact, suicidal ideation was roughly the same for those pursuing forgiveness. One solution that might have a greater impact among borrowers is student loan cancellation.
One respondent explained:
“This past year (during the pandemic) I changed jobs, had 2 visits to the ER, and separated from my husband. Being a single mom on top of the financial stresses that come with life (daycare, mortgage, student loans) has triggered anxiety attacks. Eliminating student loans would be a huge relief for my situation and could resolve my current mental health issues.”