It’s no wonder the country’s $1.5 trillion in collective student loan debt is being called a crisis. Young borrowers are delaying major life milestones such as buying homes and starting families because of the financial burden of their loans. A million borrowers default on their loans every year.
But there’s another equally damaging consequence of student loan debt that’s talked about less often: its impact on borrowers’ mental health. That’s certainly not something that’s discussed with 18-year-olds as they prepare to sign the dotted line on a 10-year loan.
Just ask Sophia Buxton. At its peak, her debt was close to $150,000 in student loans, mostly from private lenders. “This was well beyond what I originally financed because I accrued so much interest in my first couple of years out of school due to forbearance and interest-only payments,” she said.
The debt’s effect on her mental health became severe. “I allowed this period of my life to rob me of years due to severe depression,” Buxton said. Underemployed with multiple jobs, living at home with her parents and sometimes unable to make ends meet, she relied on credit cards to cover daily expenses. And she defaulted on one of her loans.
“I felt like I would never get out of the financial hole, so what was the point in trying? I allowed my debt to let me think that I was unlovable, unworthy of marriage, children, happiness, travel, etc. ... In my mind, it was easier to just end it all,” she said.
Fortunately, Buxton sought treatment for her depression. She also eventually refinanced her loans, opened up about her struggle, and has been making progress on paying down her debt.
“I felt like I would never get out of the financial hole, so what was the point in trying?”
Anyone who has shouldered the burden of six-figure student loan debt knows the heavy toll it can take. “Waking up every day to work a job knowing that 80 to 90 percent of your net pay is going directly to student loan debt is a unique monster,” Buxton said. “My depression also fooled me into thinking that I was completely alone in this struggle.”
The truth is, Buxton is far from alone. Millions of student loan borrowers face stress, depression and other mental health concerns due to the pressure their debt places on them. Some research, the bulk of which is performed by financial companies that offer product solutions, has examined what those effects look like.
Here are seven statistics that prove just how harmful student debt can be.
1 in 10
This is how many people say student loans are their top worry. A new survey from Stash found that of respondents who said money is a source of stress, about 10% named student loans as their No. 1 stressor.
The percentage of student loan borrowers who lose sleep at night due to stressing over how they are going to repay their student loans. That’s according to a survey by Student Loan Hero that polled more than 1,000 student loan borrowers.
The percentage of borrowers who reported having physical symptoms of anxiety due to the stress from their student loan debt, according to the same Student Loan Hero study. Symptoms included headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach, rapid heartbeat, fatigue and more.
1 in 15
The number of borrowers with a high debt load who have considered suicide because of it, according to a survey by financial coaching company Student Loan Planner of its existing email subscribers. The survey said 70% of respondents had between $100,000 and $500,000 in student loan debt and that 90% were between the ages of 20 and 39.
Percentage of working professionals with student loan debt who said it is a source of “significant” or “very significant” stress, according to research commissioned by Gradifi.
The percentage of student loan borrowers who say student loan debt has interfered with self-care like purchasing health insurance and gym memberships, according to a survey by financial services company SoFi. The survey, which polled 1,200 SoFi customers, also found that 15% of respondents have sought a mental health professional to deal with the stress of their student debt.
The amount of college debt that causes borrowers to have lower well-being. A Gallup poll found that Americans who graduated from college between 1990 and 2014 and borrowed $50,000 or more weren’t as likely as their college debt-free peers to thrive in four elements of well-being: purpose, financial well-being, community, and physical well-being.
Don’t Give Up
Buxton’s debt situation took a dark turn, and for years, it seemed like she had no way out. But that wasn’t the case.
With the help of therapy, financial education and a good friend to push her along, Buxton was able to turn her situation around. “Over the past few years, I’ve completely restored my credit, moved out on my own, bought a car and tripled my income since my first job post-grad school,” she said. “I’m obsessed with my monthly budget and even invested a few bucks in my Robinhood app.”
It was a long, tough road to get to this point. And now that she can look back on her journey with a new perspective, Buxton has a few words of advice for others who might be struggling to balance student loan debt and mental health.
Know you aren’t alone. Experiencing anxiety, depression or stress as a result of your unmanageable debt can feel like a lonely situation. Everyone’s story is unique, but there’s a large community of people who are in a similar situation. You’re far from the only one.
It’s OK to talk about your debt. Mental health is often a taboo subject ― and so is money. But keeping these issues to yourself only makes the problem worse. “Let’s break down the shame so we have a baseline to build upon and stay encouraged,” Buxton said. It’s important to talk about your struggle, whether that’s with a therapist or a trusted confidant. “Also, it helps to let your friends know so they aren’t inviting you to brunch every weekend,” she added.
Talk about your salary, too. Buxton said openly discussing your salary, especially with people in your same field, is key to equity. “The more we share openly, the more we can use our collective information to help each other out of the hole by first earning fair and equitable wages.”
Be kind to yourself. Finally, work on finding the balance between paying off your debt but also living a good life. “We are not on this earth for a long time, so make sure it’s a good time,” Buxton said. Of course, that doesn’t mean spending recklessly. Instead, treat yourself to a small purchase every now and then, and set bigger rewards for when you reach certain financial goals. “Climbing the mountain is not nearly as satisfying if you don’t take breaks to enjoy the view.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.