If you look at a list of the professions most prone to suicide, it’s like looking a who’s who of high student debt occupations. There a bunch of different stats when it comes to white collar jobs and suicide, but all of them look awful.
I decided I needed to write about student debt suicide because I continue to get horrifying emails from readers who tell me that they are contemplating killing themselves because of their student debt.
If that’s you and you have feelings of despair or suicidal thoughts over student debt, stop reading this and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
The dark side of rising tuition
This article should serve as a wake-up call to professional schools everywhere. There are very real costs to continuing to raise tuition to sky-high levels just because you can.
People are literally dying because support is not there for them, and student loan borrowers are burdened by mountains of debt. Token employer-student loan contributions and “Fix the Debt” summits do little to solve this problem or mitigate anxiety.
The cost of school needs to come down. Administrators need to be fired. Staff should be let go. Real change must happen. Agree or disagree? Either way, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments part of the article at the bottom of the page.
Many readers who express having depression because of their student debt tell me they think there’s no way out, no escape and that they’ve lost hope.
Luckily, most folks who’ve expressed these feelings have not had suicidal thoughts, but I’ve had people go so far as to tell me what bridge they want to jump off because their debt will be forgiven tax-free and then their family won’t have to deal with it. I’m dead serious.
Business Insider compiled a list of the top 19 jobs where you’re most likely to die from suicide. Physicians, dentists, veterinarians and chiropractors all make it in the top six.
Many of the stress faced by professionals is not related to their finances, but my theory is that the debt is a factor that can help push someone over the edge. Debt can make you feel trapped in a situation you desperately want to get out of.
Professionals commit student loan debt suicide at rates far higher than the general public
Most of the resources I reviewed for this post suggested that the suicide rate for a doctoral level professional is about two times that of the general population.
Maybe you’re a dentist, and you’re frustrated that you’re the last place people want to go. Patients complain all the time about your prices, you owe over $300,000 on your dental school debt and you have another half million in business debt. Dentists are about two times as likely to die by suicide on average compared to the nation at large.
Physicians are severely underappreciated. You get way overbooked by your hospital scheduling group and you’re abused during residency. When you finally start making money, you’re stuck with massive student loans that grew a bunch while you were in training.
Physicians share a similar suicide rate with dentists, and women physicians are particularly vulnerable. Being on the hook for so much debt and a large amount of professional stress takes its toll.
According to The Veterinary Record, veterinarians might have the highest rate of suicide of any profession, at over 4 times the national average.
Besides being accused of greed by customers who can’t or won’t pay for their pet’s care, veterinarians struggle with some of the highest debt to income ratios of any profession.
Pharmacists, lawyers and other professionals struggle with suicide and burnout in a big way. Pretty much every professional group that has used our consult services or read our blog is at a much higher risk of suicide than other Americans.
While correlation with high student debt does not imply that the debt is directly causing this sad phenomenon, I know from talking to over 5,000 people that student debt is a major factor in the stress that professionals like you face every day.
Five ways out of your student loan debt besides suicide
To prove to you and any friends you have who might be struggling with their student debt, there are a bazillion alternatives besides harming yourself. Don’t kill yourself over debt. It’s important to realize that so many strategies exist that remove the pressure of a huge debt load.
Option 1: Move to another country to avoid student debt
Have you ever heard of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE)? I have a bunch of clients who use it legitimately to pay as little as $0 a month on their student loans. Those loans are not in default, delinquent or otherwise late. You have to qualify, but it’s not that difficult to take advantage of.
In fact, these clients are on track to have their loans forgiven after 20 to 25 years of low payments, assuming they live abroad for the entire period. At the end of the repayment, they will owe taxes on the forgiven amount, but that’s easy to plan for.
Many expats make the mistake of using alternative income documentation instead of tax returns in the case of living overseas. You can show a $0 taxable income if you qualify to get those $0-dollar payments.
Want to move to New Zealand or Australia to practice veterinary medicine while starting a life together with your Aussie spouse? I’ve had many clients and readers do something like this, and the student debt is no longer a burden.
Option 2: Use student loan forgiveness to avoid the full weight of your debt
Many borrowers who reach out to me suffering from depression have paid extra on their loans only to watch the balance stay the same or even grow. Instead of doing that, if you have federal student loans, what about paying your loans back on the Pay As You Earn program (PAYE) for 20 years?
The payments never go higher than 10% of your discretionary income (which calculates to be lower than 10% of your actual income), and you pay income tax on the forgiven amount at the end of the repayment. You can choose another repayment plan under income-driven repayment (IDR), too.
In reality, the IRS might use the insolvency rule to prevent any taxes from coming out of your pocket at the end. I wouldn’t plan on that, but it’s something that might happen nonetheless.
You can also use forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness to pay zero taxes on the forgiven balance after making payments for 10 years.
Students and depression are not a good mix because borrowers feel a sense of guilt for not being able to pay back their debt. You shouldn’t. You were taken advantage of by a predatory student lending system where everyone from the federal government to your College Dean conspired to charge ridiculous tuition for your degree. The costs associated with undergrad and graduate school are outrageous.
Furthermore, the economic risk of that degree was probably drastically understated, with BS clichés like “there’s never been a better time for dentists, pharmacists, physicians, lawyers and so on.
Option 3: Use forbearance until your mental health is better
Yes, student loan forbearance and deferment are a lousy way to handle your student loans for an extended period. Guess what though, if you’re dead, then nobody cares about how bad your finances are. They miss you and wish you were still here.
That’s why if you’re really struggling and not doing well with your mental health, just call your loan servicer and request a forbearance. The payments will stop, you’ll buy yourself time to get help by seeking therapy, counseling or other resources, and then you can restart payments when you’re ready.
Income-based repayment can be useful as well instead of forbearance, and it’s usually much preferable. That said, if you’re freaking out because of your payments, just call and stop them.
I have readers who haven’t made a payment on their loans in over 10 years and are in default. They’re still very much alive and doing just fine. I would never recommend not making payments, but wrecking your finances is way better than wrecking your life, if you have to choose.
Option 4: Drastically slash your housing and car expenses
One of the biggest reasons for stress among professionals is living paycheck to paycheck. You probably got a big boost in your pay at some point in your journey, and that can create “sudden wealth syndrome.”
You deserve that new car so you can dump the clunker from school. You’re tired of living with roommates, and you want to buy a house like a normal adult.
I get the desire, but it could be one of the biggest culprits weighing down your happiness.
Whenever I see someone in financial distress, 99 times out of 100, a house or car is involved (and we’ve made plans for over 5,000 people, so this is a real sample size).
If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, try to get to a point where you owe less than your car is worth and take it to a place like CarMax and trade it in for a 2007 Toyota or something reliable but cheap. You could slash your monthly payment in half and give yourself more cushion.
If you’re renting by yourself, listen for opportunities to room with cool people from work. If you have a big house with rooms but not a lot of people, rent out a room. If you have in-laws or parents close by and your mortgage stresses you, reduce the number of households and have family move in with you.
Tackling your house and car expenses by living one rung down on the economic ladder compared to your income could save a low five-figure number right away. That would do a lot to ease the stress on your budget.
Option 5: Work less so you can enjoy life more
I had a conversation with a veterinarian recently who owed about $500,000 of student debt. I asked her what her ideal life looked like, and she suggested it would involve working about three or four days a week.
She was a good saver, and she spent around $40,000 per year of her $90,000 pre-tax income. She could pay about $500 a month to her student loans and $800 a month into an investment account for the tax bomb and be fine when it comes to her student loans. With a couple of tweaks to her budget, she was able to afford a part-time lifestyle right now during the best years of her life.
Is she lazy? No way, she worked crazy hard to get to where she’s at. What we did was help her to enjoy life more to get ahead of burnout before it happened. She can always go back to work full time, and she’s not hurting herself by reducing her work hours so she can do more of what she enjoys.
One of the great parts about having the ability to earn a six-figure income is being able to slash those hours and still make more than the typical household income.
With all the corporate groups taking over professions these days, you might as well take advantage by negotiating a part-time gig. After all, it’s already happening by force in parts of the pharmacy world.
Many professionals I speak with who have tons of debt think they need to work a ton in order to pay it off.
If you’re going for forgiveness, you don’t need to worry about how much you work. All you need to do is figure out your monthly amount that needs to go into an account for the future tax consequences and to make your required minimum monthly payment. If you make less money, that payment goes down!
Hence, if student debt stresses you out, consider reducing your workload to prevent burnout and try out a forgiveness strategy.
Many borrowers with six figures of student loan debt don’t need to work full time. They impose that expectation on themselves because of how society expects them to work. Realize that you’ve got more options than that.
Using Student Loan Planner® as an instrument of hope to reduce the risk of suicide
I’m passionate about student loans because my wife struggled with them early in our relationship. I also get way more excited about the prospect of playing a small part in saving someone’s life rather than making a quick buck.
If you or someone you love is even remotely thinking about suicide or has expressed suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK. I’ve called this suicide prevention number to ask for advice on how to cope with suicidal feelings after talking to someone who expressed those thoughts, so there should be no stigma in using this resource.
If you’ve struggled with depression because of your student loans, you’re not alone. Feel free to use any of the contact buttons on this site to share your story, or use a pseudonym to share in the comments below if you’d like.
Always take discussion of student loan debt suicide and suicide in general seriously. Whenever someone mentions a time, place or method, refer them to that suicide hotline and memorize the number.
It’s time to fight back against the terrible state of self-inflicted harm among professionals. There are plenty of reasons you might feel stress in your job that I can’t speak to because I haven’t been through it.
That said, if student loans are contributing at all to suicidal thoughts, they shouldn’t be. I’ve never seen a case in over 5,000 where the borrower didn’t have options, many of which they hadn’t even considered.
If you’re not facing an imminent mental health crisis over your debt, we’d be happy to make a plan for you to take the stress off your mind. Just let us know your story and we’d be happy to help.
How do you think the student loan system needs to change so fewer people view suicide as an option? Share your thoughts in the comments below?