Is there a connection between student loans and mental health?

A new study proposes how having student loans could be a detriment to your mental health. This seems both obvious and profound.

Student loans got you down? That statement might be more true than you think.

A new study from the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work shows the potential links between student loans and mental illness.

The full paper is paywalled so I can’t link to it (though if you dig around hard enough, you can find it). But I can talk about it here. And what I can say is that the paper and its findings seems at the same time both completely obvious and surprisingly profound.

Here’s what it means for you.

The study

The study, with the research-heavy title of “Comparing Naturalistic Mental Health Expressions on Student Loan Debts Using Reddit and Twitter” looked at the connection between people’s online expressions about student loans with their mental health state.

Everything quoted below is sourced from this paper

As the Abstract puts it:

“The primary objective of this study was to identify patterns in users’ naturalistic expressions on student loans on two social media platforms. The secondary objective was to examine how these patterns, sentiments, and emotions associated with student loans differ in user posts indicating mental illness.”

Accordingly, they analyzed over 85,000 posts from Reddit and Twitter over the last 15 or so years.

(Oof, just let that sink in.)

The conclusions

The results they found stated:

“Statistically significant associations were found between mental illness statuses and sentiments and emotions. Posts expressing mental illness showed more negative sentiments and were more likely to express sadness and fear.”

And a further conclusion:

“Results indicated that student loan debt is a constant stressor that creates mental health issues and can affect a borrower’s cognitive bandwidth. High levels of mental health issues, including effects on mental health, lack of mental health care and treatment, feeling depressed, stressful feelings, and worrying thoughts, were related to student loan debt and led to performance pressure and significant negative academic and personal outcomes…”

And some more quotes, while I’m quoting:

“Analyses of sentiments and emotions of users’ posts indicating mental illness and comparing
those with users whose posts do not imply mental health problems revealed that student loan
debts amplify concerns for people with mental illness.”

And finally, a quote from one of the authors, Gaurav Sinha:

“Student loan debt per se is not a bad thing, but people need to know what they’re getting into…People have a limited cognitive bandwidth. We spend a lot of time thinking about money and our debts. That not only affects your financial health but also your mental health.”

My analysis: Obvious

These authors could have just reached out and asked me.

Authors: “Hey Mike, do you think that the massive student loan balances that affect millions of borrowers in this country might be leading to feelings of stress, anguish, and hopelessness.”

Mike: “Well, golly gee whiz, I do believe I would answer that in the affirmative.”

Authors: “And furthermore, do you think these people might be more willing to express these negative sentiments while discussing student loans ON THE INTERNET???”

Answering the question on whether the presence of student loans in people’s lives can lead to distress, or even mental illness (however it’s defined), seems to be an obvious conclusion, as anyone who has had student loans knows.

No one who has student loans is “happy” about it. No one gets to spend hundreds of dollars a month in virtual perpetuity and not have it sap a little bit of your boundless optimism for a better life.

About the best I can say is that there are people who are avoidant about the issue, who don’t think about their student loans, or who are able to rationalize that there was a (hopefully good) reason why they got them in the first place, so all the payments are worth it.

That said, the issue of sourcing these posts on the social media would seem like a fatal bias to the article. Of course people are going to be using Twitter and Reddit to vent about student loans. If student loans weren’t holding people down, why would they post about it online? “So thankful for my student loans today. #crushingit”

It’s the same reason why restaurant reviews are so difficult to interpret. Most people aren’t going to write a review if the meal was just okay. And those who did have a extreme experience are still more likely to write if the experience was bad than if it was good.

So the reader needs to do the hard work of removing this negative bias to see if the place is really worth going to. Or, just avoid reading the reviews entirely.

And yet profound

And yet, there is a profundity to this study and its conclusions that can easily get missed.

Student loan debt hurts. There is a negative emotional component to a debt product that people take on (granted, willingly) and have for years if not decades.

I always say that debt is a drag on your ability to build wealth. But debt is also a drag on your mental health because of that drag.

A drag on your ability to build wealth means that you won’t be able to buy a home as quickly as you’d like (if ever). A drag on your ability to build wealth may mean that you don’t feel secure enough to have the career or the family that you would optimally like. And it also means increased struggle and difficulty.

This is, at heart, why I rail against people taking on debt that they don’t need to take on, and rail even harder against people who want to give up and say that they’ll just have their debt forever.

There is a cost to “giving up“. It’s not a neutral decision. Having debt will cause you pain.

I think this part isn’t adequately acknowledged. And it’s why the first word in my business title isn’t “Finance”, it’s “Empathic”. The emotions matter when it comes to money, and the sooner you accept this and are willing to engage in that headspace, the better off you’ll be.

So to add to the reasons why you want to pay off your debt, here’s another one: because it could improve your mental health. Think about that the next time you think about taking on a new loan.

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