Across the country, fully vaccinated sets of parents are making plans to celebrate their new college graduates. Even with the limits of COVID-era celebrations, many colleges are planning some sort of graduation festivities. Grads will don caps and gowns while families sit outside to honor their achievements. Social media feeds will fill with smiling grads. But is everyone as happy as they seem?
College graduation is supposed to be a time of celebration, a commencement of the future that lies ahead, and graduating in 2021 as the nation’s worries over COVID begin to shift should be especially exciting. But graduation is increasingly not the exciting launch to a future that it is meant to be, because graduation also means the beginning of student loan payments.
It’s time to take seriously the mental health ramifications of student debt infecting almost every aspect of a borrower’s life. Beginning with a freshman’s first semester, the looming anxiety caused by debt affects every decision a student makes. From the selection of a major to the decision to take on course overloads, to choices over whether or not to work an unpaid internship, the financial burden of a college degree increasingly replaces the hope a college education should bring with fear and anxiety instead.
As one student told Student Loan Planner (a consulting company that focuses on student debt) in a mental health awareness survey, “Student loans make me feel like my life isn’t my own. A time that should be filled with excitement and new experiences is instead filled with dread and uncertainty.”
In 2021, student debt ballooned to $1.71 trillion. According to Educationdata.org, 43.2 million student borrowers are in debt by an average of $39,351 each. Over the last 20 years, the total federal student loan debt balance has increased 584%, averaging an annual growth rate of 29.2%.
A chilling sign of the debt crisis is the fact that nearly one million borrowers owe more than $200,000.
The story of student debt isn’t new. And the story of how it creates stress for students isn’t new, either. We know that student debt keeps graduates from buying homes and cars, and starting families.
In an article for Very Well Mind, Taneasha White tells the story of Brooke Taylor, a Virginia-based educator and business owner, whose debt is keeping her from planning a future: “I’m 31 and would like to buy a house, and my loans definitely impede that. What really gets me is the interest. It feels like you’ll never be able to pay them off because of the amount of interest that is tacked on every month. Well over 30,000 dollars has been added to my loans just in interest alone.”
We have known for some time that student debt does not facilitate the commencement of a graduate’s life. But perhaps less attention has been paid to the fact that debt could literally be killing our graduates.
Financial stress and suicide have long been linked. A meta-analysis published in Clinical Psychology Review that combined results from more than 65 studies found that indebted individuals are nearly three times more likely to be depressed and almost six times more likely to have attempted or completed suicide. Those who died by suicide were eight times more likely to be in debt. Despite the correlation between debt, financial worry, depression and anxiety, few studies have addressed links between student debt and suicide.
Cryn Johansen, in a 2012 article produced by the Economic Hardship Project and published in HuffPost, tells the story of Jason Yoder, an organic chemistry graduate of Illinois State University who incurred over $100,000 in debt, yet was having a hard time getting a job in his field. In 2007, his mother discovered his body in a campus lab, dead due to nitrogen asphyxiation. According to Johansen, “Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported.”
Johansen also writes about John Koch, a 47-year old law school grad whose debt ballooned to over $320,000 after various deferments. In the story, he darkly jokes that the loans were meant to “better myself,” yet left him living with his parents and thinking about ways to die.
These are not isolated cases. Instead, they are indicative of an epidemic of suicide and suicidal thoughts linked…