student loans 2006 to 2018
Loan values are not seasonally adjusted and are reported in 2018 dollars using personal consumption expenditures prices. Data from the Federal Reserve. Photo credit: RadhaKrishna Balla / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When billionaire Robert Smith pledged to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College’s graduating class recently, the story went viral. But few people realized that his generosity might have saved some of the students’ lives — literally.

Many students and recent graduates have killed themselves, and hundreds of thousands have contemplated suicide because of the crushing burden of their student loans, according to research and surveys.

Millions more are suffering from depression, anxiety, and other distress because getting an education in the US now comes with a lifetime of debt.

“What happens if you commit suicide?” This question appeared in the StudentLoans community on Reddit. “Just weighing my options.”

When asked “Why would you even think that?,” the original poster answers: “Seems like an alternative many people would choose if it ended the debt, to be honest.”

The post received a mix of dissuasion and concurring voices. “The payments just… keep going up and up and up and up… until you die,” one replies.

These young people are not alone — not by a long shot. According to a recent survey of current and former students between 20 and 39 years of age, 70 percent of them were $100K to $500K in debt. Because of this burden,

One in 11 deaths by suicide among young professionals was at least partly due to student loans;

One in 15 has contemplated suicide;

Over half (53 percent) have experienced depression;

Nine in 10 experienced significant anxiety.

“Debt has a clear impact on borrowers’ mental health,” said Melanie Lockert of Student Loan Planner, the financial coaching company that did the survey. “It is something we should be talking about.”

This is not the first research on the mental toll of student loans. Over the past few years, many researchers have correlated student debt with poor psychological functioning. However, it is a topic virtually ignored by the media.

A 2015 study found that the link between student loans and mental and emotional dysfunction persists across all income and social groups in the US.

And at least one study revealed the physical and social effects of debt-related stress. In 2017, a financial advising company called Student Loan Hero did a survey of over 1,000 student borrowers. More than 70 percent reported suffering from headaches, insomnia, and other physical symptoms of anxiety, which sometimes lead to self-imposed social isolation.

“I avoid doing things with friends and family,” one respondent said, “because I don’t want them to know how broke I am.”

“Student loan–induced stress is threatening to take over the lives of borrowers,” the survey concludes.

Student loans are pulling down the US economy — this is no longer news. Americans now spend substantially more than students in other developed countries for a college education, at an average of $30,000 per student annually.

Borrowing has almost doubled over the past decade. By the end of 2018, the US had more than 44.7 million student borrowers, across all demographics and age groups, who collectively have amassed $1.56 trillion in debt, according to the US Federal Reserve.

While the macroeconomic crisis of student loans has become a heated topic in the political arena, little attention is paid to the real-life crises faced by debtors themselves. Student loan borrowers are getting crushed by the mounting burden of their debts.

Why Student Loans Are Especially Toxic

All debts are burdensome. Why is it that student loans, in particular, give people so much emotional distress?

Under current US debt systems, student loans are much tougher to discharge in bankruptcy. That is true both for federal and private student loans. Private student loan borrowers, in particular, have very few protections if they struggle to repay their loans.

Federal loans, on the other hand, have a handful of forgiveness mechanisms, but such relief is almost inaccessible to the majority of debtors. Federal loans can be forgiven after 10 years (the standard repayment period) for those in select occupations, such as public service workers and teachers, but in practice these programs help very few applicants.

Take, for example, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), one of the most popular types of student loan forgiveness. According to the latest available data, of 1,173,420 PSLF borrowers who attempted to qualify for forgiveness as of the third quarter in 2018, only 55 were granted relief.

The Student Loan Planner survey also suggests that the middle class might be hit the hardest by the mental tolls. One in nine borrowers who owe $80,000 to $150,000 in student loan debt considered suicide — as opposed to one in seventeen borrowers who owe up to $600,000.

Lockert explained to WhoWhatWhy that middle class borrowers are likely to be the most depressed because “a higher chunk of their income is going to debt payments.”

For those who sign up for an income-based repayment plan, payments are set at a percentage of their discretionary income. The plan protects those below the poverty line, but for the middle class, an income rise translates to a heavier monthly debt burden.

A college education — traditionally a way for the poor and the underprivileged to raise themselves to a higher financial and social status — has, instead, become a perverse impediment to their aspirations.

More than two-thirds of graduates of the class of 2018 entered the labor market with an average of $29,800 in student loan debt. Many may end up in jobs that will never pay enough to allow them to become debt-free.

“[They] feel like they did everything right. They took out loans to go to school, did well, worked hard. But instead of that leading to success, income, and opportunities, many borrowers feel the weight of debt,” said Lockert.

Whether it gets worse or better will depend on policy changes in rules governing student loan forgiveness or repayment plans restructured to ease the crushing burdens on students who borrowed to secure their piece of the American dream.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referenced Melanie Lockert as the founder of Student Loan Planner. She is not the founder, but works for the company. The appropriate corrections were made to reflect this. 

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from DonkeyHotey / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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2 years ago

Andy White, your comment is self-righteous, arrogant, and condescending. Good for you that life went as planned and you were able to pay off your loans. Truly, good for you! However, that’s not the case for a significant number of individuals who end up buried under soul-crushing student debt. I know. I am one of those individuals. I took out loans for grad school, in a field I felt confident I would make an income that would allow me to pay off those debts. I did not take out those loan lightly, and I fully planned to pay them off. Sadly, life threw several unexpected curve balls (including serious health issues) that completely derailed my career and earning capability – thought no fault of my own. (Silly me for not having a crystal ball when I took out the loans!!) In the meantime, the interest keeps piling up and now the original debt has more than quadrupled, leaving me with a debt I can never ever repay. I can’t go back in time and change a decision I made years ago. I never, in a million years, imagined I’d be in the situation I am today – buried in debt with no way to pay it off. My life is ruined and I will have to work until the day I die due to the debt burden. So please, get off your high horse. Try being grateful that you were able to pay back your loans rather than judging others who had unexpected misfortunes along the way.

~ Occams
~ Occams
2 years ago

So…..going into suicidal-debt to pay for indoctrination and brainwashing so they, too, can become slaves to the Federal Reserve, and work to buy a home they can’t possibly afford DUE to the Federal Reserve’s real estate bubble creation?

Wow. The American Dream. Where do I sign up!!?

2 years ago

It’s nice that a billionaire decided to pay off student loans for a graduating class at Morehead College.

Yet, if their was any sanity in the US society, there would be no billionaires, because that wealth would be taxed to the extent that the nation would provide free college education, Medicare for All, a decent pension for retirees, well-paying jobs for all that want one, excellent and abundant public transportation, nationalized energy, pharmaceutical, utility corporations and more.

Jeff Wallis
Jeff Wallis
2 years ago

Thanks Andy…sounds like you have it all figured out! I’m sure your experience is no different than anyone else’s. Great inspiration and simple solve to what others seem to think is somehow complicated! What a crazy world.

Andy White
Andy White
2 years ago

I just paid off $84,000 in student loans after 16 years. When I took out the loans I knew what I would have to pay them back. Maybe the financial counselors or the parents of these young students needs to explain to the student what it entails including hoow much per year they would have to pay back. I graduated when I was 24 after taking time off to figure out what I should do about my future. My parents could not afford to send me to school so when I took out the loans I knew I would have to be responsible for it. Maybe someone needs to teach children about responsibility and what causes anxiety. It’s not being prepared. It would be helpful if parents taught their kids about these things. Wow! What a concept? Have parents teach their kids something.

2 years ago
Reply to  Andy White

Sounds like you majored in “blaming the victim” at your alleged college.
Who knows how you managed to be the type to pay back those loans for your obviously completely superficial education. Perhaps you’ll lose your job, whatever it is, soon, and then you’ll be the one taught about this “responsibility” alt-rightism.

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