As annual student loan borrowing has become increasingly commonplace in the United States, the question of how the burden of a large loan looming at the beginning of independent adulthood affects the mental health of young people is one that has not been looked at until recently.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health and the University of California, Los Angeles posed two questions in this study, published in Social Science & Medicine: What is the association between the amount that students accrue during undergraduate studies and their mental well-being post graduation, when they are between the ages of 25-31; and what is the association between annual student loan borrowing and the mental well-being of currently enrolled students?
In the first nationally representative study to specifically look at the effects of student loans on health, lead author Dr. Katrina Walsemann, associate professor of health, promotion, education, and behavior at the Arnold School, set out to examine the relationship between student loans and early adult mental health. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, a nationally representative sample of young adults in the Unites States, researchers found that those who had higher amounts of debt incurred from student loans reported higher levels of depressive symptoms, even with adjustments for parental wealth, childhood socioeconomic status, and other factors. “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,” Dr. Walsemann said.
The study of the effect of student loan debt is significant given the ongoing rise in the costs of obtaining a college degree. In 2012, student loan debt totaled over $1 trillion in the United States, making this type of loan second only to home mortgage debt. “We believe that the American middle class is suffering the most from post-graduation debt, since they do not qualify for governmental assistance, nor is their family able to take on the bulk of the costs associated with college,” Dr. Walsemann said.
There is still further research to be done, Dr. Walsemann notes, especially regarding student loan debt and the possible spillover effects into other life decisions, such as occupational choices or delaying marriage and children, and other health inequities.