The impact of student loans on mental health

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Student loan borrowers hold an average of $39,351 in debt at last count, according to EducationData.org, and many bear that financial strain for decades. While federal borrowers have had their debt payments put on hold since early 2020, that period of administrative forbearance is set to expire on Jan. 31, 2022, so millions of borrowers will once again be on the hook for monthly payments.

The impending stress of returning to your regularly scheduled payments and the stress that long-term debt carries can be detrimental to borrowers’ overall mental and financial well-being. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are options that can alleviate both the mental and financial impact of paying down student debt.

How debt can impact your mental health

Any form of long-term debt has the potential to negatively impact your mental health; Amy Morin, LCSW and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, says that people with debt are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. Among the reasons for this is the fact that debt keeps many borrowers from achieving financial milestones and goals, like saving for retirement or buying a home.

Student loan debt in particular can be problematic for borrowers’ mental health. “Many individuals don’t end up working in the field where they received their degree. Others choose to stay at home with their kids. And many of them get married while they’re in debt and their partners assist in helping them pay off their loans,” Morin says. “This can lead to feelings of guilt, regret and even despair.”

Rising costs and increased degree demand can add to stress

Student loans are a necessity for many college students. However, the net price of a college education is increasing, which usually translates into more debt, says student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz. “In addition, federal and state support of postsecondary education has been slowing or even decreasing, shifting the burden of paying for college from the government to the families,” he says.

Additionally, more and more jobs are requiring education beyond a bachelor’s degree, putting pressure on students to take on even higher levels of debt to meet hiring demands. It’s not uncommon for students to graduate from an undergraduate degree with thousands of dollars in student loan debt only to go straight into a master’s program, regardless of their financial situation.

Before jumping straight into graduate school, Kantrowitz advises students to consider whether the cost of an advanced degree is worth it compared to their anticipated income: “Generally, if your total student loan debt at graduation (including any undergraduate debt) is less than your annual income, you should be able to repay your student loans in 10 years or less.” You can find projected annual salaries by career through the Bureau of Labor Statistics or on sites like PayScale.

If your debt exceeds your projected annual income, it’s likely that you won’t be able to efficiently repay your loans. If possible, pay off as much of your undergraduate debt as you can before jumping into graduate school, since interest will continue to accrue during grad school even if you defer the payments themselves.

Tips for dealing with student debt to relieve stress

If you’re feeling anxious about making your student loan payments, particularly as the end of the administrative forbearance period draws near, you may be tempted to ignore your balance. However, sitting down and evaluating your options will enable you to make smart, informed decisions that positively impact your mental and financial health.

Practical ways to manage student loan debt

Monthly student loan payments can make it hard to focus on other financial priorities. But there are ways to reorganize your debt:

  • Adjust your monthly budget. If there are nonessentials taking up space in your budget, like subscription services or gym memberships, consider cutting them out. An extra $20 each month can help you chip away at your loan balance faster.
  • Contact your lender about hardship options. Federal student loans offer several types of deferments and forbearances that will temporarily pause payments, and private student loans often come with something similar. Check with your lender to see what options you have.
  • Switch your repayment plan. If you have federal student loans, you can sign up for a repayment plan based on your income, which could lower your monthly payments significantly. If you have private student loans, you can also consider refinancing to a lower monthly payment or interest rate.
  • Reach out to a professional. If you’re having trouble managing your finances and debt, reach out to a certified financial planner to help create a debt payoff plan that works for you and your financial situation.
  • Avoid big expenses. Morin advises waiting to make big purchases like a new house or car right away, since doing so will only lead to more debt. “You’ll be able to enjoy those things much more when you feel like you have a solid plan for getting your student loans paid off,” she says.

Practical ways to manage stress

Debt may be one of many stressors in your life. To cope with stress, you may try:

  • Mindfulness techniques. The daily practice of mindfulness is a research-proven way to cope with stress. Mindfulness and meditation can help lower your stress response and improve both mental and physical health.
  • Journaling. Journaling, for some, can be a healthy way to process stressors and the mental and emotional difficulties that come with them.
  • Exercise. Daily exercise helps to release endorphins and relieve tension, improving both mental and physical health.

These methods are great for coping with the stressors of daily life, but they aren’t the solution for every situation. If the anxiety and mental strain you experience over your student loans is chronic or is interfering with your quality of life, consider speaking to a professional counselor or therapist to help you find coping strategies that work for you.

Where to find mental health help

When it comes to finding help for your mental health, there are plenty of resources that you can use. Here are a few reputable mental health organizations and how they can help:

If you’re experiencing a mental health emergency, call emergency services or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via the live online chat feature or by phone at 800-273-8255.

The bottom line

Coping with the impact of long-term stress caused by your student loan debt isn’t something you should do alone. Whether you seek help through your lender, a certified financial planner or professional counseling, remember that student loan debt is nothing to be ashamed of, and every step you take toward paying it down is a step in the right direction.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor