A recent study published by the University of South Carolina found that college graduates with student loan debt are more likely to suffer a decline in their mental health. These new results show that the impact of student loan debt goes far beyond a graduate’s finances.
Researchers surveyed 4,600 students and graduates between the ages of 25-31 to investigate a link between “health inequities” and academic debt. Their conclusion was that students with more loans were more likely to experience depression and stress due to the anxiety of carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The report also found that in addition to declining mental health, student debt had a negative impact on “occupational trajectories,” or a student’s post-collegiate career path.
The double whammy of a damaged psyche and a stunted career is enough to send any grad into a downward spiral, but the financial limitations of student loans serve to only to exacerbate the problem. Lead author Katrina M. Walsemann stated that delaying major milestones and decisions in order to pay down loans is contributing to increased depression.
“We are speculating that part of the reason that these types of loans are so stressful is the fact that you cannot defer them, they follow you for the rest of your life until you pay them off,” Walsemann said.
Walsemann and her team found that the financial strain of student debt has a measurable effect on students and graduates from all socioeconomic levels. Simply put, the more debt a student has, the more damaged his or her psychological well-being.
An unanticipated observation during the study was that surveyed students from low-income families or those who had already experienced extreme emotional instability were more capable of coping with student debt.
“Those who are able to enroll in college despite their early-life disadvantages may be in better mental health or possess personality characteristics that increase their odds of attending college, such as being future-oriented or highly motivated,” Walsemann said.
The University of South Carolina’s conclusions further expand upon a Gallup study published in late 2014. In this study, Gallup examined how student debt impacted five elements of well being, including purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. It found that Americans who graduated with $50,000 of student debt between 1990 and 2014 experienced a decline in four out of five elements. The element of financial being showed a 15 point “thriving gap” between indebted and debt-free students. The only element without a statistically significant relationship with student debt was physical well-being.
Like Walsemann, Gallup authors attributed wide thriving gaps to the inability of indebted graduates to make major life decisions.
“Studies show that high student debt can result in the deferral of major life events, such as marriage and homeownership. High student debt can also result in a graduate pursuing a career path he or she would not have taken otherwise,” Gallup said.
While these studies are providing crucial statistical evidence, they are merely proving what college students have been saying all along—that student debt is a barrier to a high quality of life, not a stepping stone to success.