In the fall of 2010, after studying two years at a local community college, Jeremy Lucas, a soft-spoken young man from western North Carolina, enrolled at Appalachian State University, a large four-year school with a scenic campus in Boone, on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was only a couple semesters shy of a bachelor’s degree when his parents told him they couldn’t support him anymore. Guided by the university, he took on a $20,000 loan and also started working, but soon found himself struggling just to pay basic bills. In 2013, he dropped out without graduating.
A year or so later, Lucas was still living in Boone, working the night shift at McDonald’s and trying to save money so he could re-enroll. But the stress of his student loan, rent and everything else had pushed him deep into depression. After one long night shift, his manager lashed out at Lucas and another coworker, and the tirade pushed him over the edge. While other workers went back to their shifts, Lucas grabbed a chef knife and thrust the blade against his neck. A co-worker intervened before he hurt himself.
“My whole spiral downwards started from the fact that I couldn’t pay for and finish college on my own... I had to do whatever it took to survive, which put me in some ugly situations,” Lucas says now.
He’s not alone, of course: Stress from student loans is taking a devastating toll on a generation’s mental health. Surprisingly few studies have taken on the subject, but in one widely cited 2013 paper, “Sick of our loans: Student borrowing and the mental health of young adults in the United States,” researchers at the University of South Carolina and University of California, Los Angeles found that student loans were linked to poorer psychological functioning, even when controlling for factors like socioeconomic status. The study found that taking on loans impacted borrowers’ mental health even before they had finished school and that higher debt was in fact linked to more serious depression.
“We are speculating that part of the reason that these types of loans are so stressful is the fact that you cannot defer them,” says Katrina Walsemann, the study’s lead author. “They follow you for the rest of your life until you pay them off.”
The extent of America’s student loan crisis is well documented. More than 43 million Americans carry a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt—a figure that’s more than double the country’s annual military budget. Nearly three-quarters of all four-year college graduates entering the workforce are indebted, at an average of some $25,000 for public school grads and $32,000 for private school grads. Interest rates are as high as 12 percent. And for many young Americans, it all adds up to a mental health strain that becomes overwhelming.
"For me, it’s stressful all the time. It’s a constant anxiety."
Angela Harper was a star in her Fayetteville, North Carolina, high school. She was a strong, ambitious student and a local beauty pageant winner. Given her father’s military veteran status, she had access to a great public tuition option, but instead set her eyes on a scholarship intended for future North Carolina educators. It seemed more prestigious, and her teachers and friends expected her to apply. “You’re 17,” she recalls. “Everyone’s looking at you.”
Harper won the scholarship, enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and declared a dance education major, only to realize she didn’t want to study education after all. Her grades dropped, and after a couple years she lost the prized teachers’ scholarship. To cover the difference, she took on some $15,000 in student loans from consumer banking company Sallie Mae.
Harper graduated, but struggled to find work in a recession economy with a liberal arts degree in sociology. Now 32, she spent much of her 20s unemployed or bouncing around between different unstable jobs — gymnastics coach, hair salon receptionist, mall kiosk worker, among others.
And while she strived to make ends meet, the loans followed her like a wayward spirit. She fell far behind on payments and felt intimidated by collections agents who accused her of lying about her lack of means to pay the bills. She even got calls late at night from people claiming to be collectors that were actually identity phishing attempts. “You don’t know what’s a scam and what’s real,” she remembers.
At one point she stopped collecting her mail, afraid of what she’d find from lenders. Her appetite dropped, and during one particularly rough stretch she was so depressed she didn’t leave her apartment for a week and a half.
“I had no job,” she says. “It’s like, ‘How am I going to pay this?’”
Yet even for young people who do have jobs, including positions with high salaries, student loans often represent a significant burden, adding a constant stress and dictating monumental life decisions.
As a marketing director for a software company, Kandace Proud makes six figures. But she also lives in Los Angeles, where rents are soaring. To fund her education she had to take out student loans, mostly for graduate school at Babson College, a private business school near Boston, where she was living at the time.
It was a good education, Proud says, but by the time she finished her master’s degree her total student debt had climbed to around $100,000. Her private loans were also locked in at high interest rates; after years of payments, her balance is only marginally lower. “I feel like it’s never going down,” she says.
And even as a successful professional, the debt’s impact on Proud’s mental health is huge. “I think about it constantly,” she says. "For me, it’s stressful all the time. It’s a constant anxiety.”
A lot of that comes from the way the debt feels like it’s weighing on her future: Any thought of buying a place of her own is a nonstarter, and after paying rent and car bills and saving a small amount for retirement, her $700 monthly student loan payments mean she still ends up living paycheck to paycheck.
“I feel like I’m kind of a step behind,” she says. “It affects all stages of your life.”
Proud is 38. Her payments put her on track to have the debt cleared in 20 years. “So basically by the time I retire maybe I’ll have my student loans paid off,” she jokes.
But countless young borrowers are stressed and not even thinking about the end game.
Matthew Ramirez, 27, studied English and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas, a private school in his hometown of Houston. Ramirez’s priority was attending a desirable school that was close to home, even if other colleges might have been more affordable.
“I was pretty young,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking in like super practical terms.”
He ended up with some $50,000 of debt, some of which his parents have helped with. But Ramirez, who works on a decent salary at a fashion magazine in Houston, now feels the weight of his youthful decision to take on loans. “It makes me depressed,” he says. “It definitely feels like a burden.”
Ramirez makes minimum payments but mostly copes by avoiding thinking about the subject.
He also feels resentful toward the whole system: He’s done everything he was supposed to do, so why should he now have to sacrifice a decent living by forking over big loan payments?
“It just sort of feels like a trap,” he says.
“There’s a lot of systemic issues that make a lot of people psychologically unequipped to deal with debt.”
Brooke Sprowl, a 32-year-old psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in young adults, also sees a broader cultural phenomenon at work. She explains that more than ever, American youth are living in a state of “prolonged adolescence,” where adulthood isn’t usually achieved until after one’s college years. Part of adolescent psychological development, she says, is a sense of invincibility or impulsiveness, with present needs valued over future consequences. In a psychological sense, a 17- or 18-year-old simply doesn’t appreciate the impact of loans the same way a 30- or 40-year-old would.
“The idea of debt feels more conceptual,” Sprowl says. “Part of it is they don’t really know what they’re signing up for.”
Young people also generally aren’t counseled enough on finances and things like interest rates, says Sprowl, and are often simply directed to go to college without a real consideration of cost. For the millions who assume debt, it all adds up to a lack of preparation for the emotional strain of repayment. “It’s a big problem,” she explains. “There’s a lot of systemic issues that make a lot of people psychologically unequipped to deal with debt.”s
Still, she says, when people later suffer serious mental health issues related to their debt, the stress from the loans acts as more a trigger than an actual cause. “These are circumstances that are kind of bringing out underlying ways of dealing with things,” Sprowl explains. For someone like Harper, the UNC Greensboro graduate who at one point refused to leave her apartment, the coping mechanism was avoidance. For Lucas, the former Appalachian State student, the stress brought on by the loans exposed underlying issues with anxiety or depression. Being forced to eventually drop out of school and work a tough shift at McDonald’s was also likely a severe blow to his sense of self-identity.
“A big part of depression is a distorted worldview and distorted thinking,” Sprowl says. “So if as a result of your student debt you’re feeling depressed, then that feels like it’s insurmountable...like there’s no way around it, you’re powerless and it’s never going to change.”
Still, Sprowl points out, the reality is that even the most daunting circumstances can, and do, change.
After years of struggle, Harper ended up taking postgraduate classes in information systems management. She moved to Melbourne, Florida, joined the Navy Reserves, and started her own sales business. On better financial ground, she was able to take advantage of programs that helped organize her loans, and she now makes payments of around $200 a month. “It’s just chipping away at a mountain,” she says.
It’s a situation Lucas is still dreaming about.
Soon after the knife incident, he quit his job at McDonald’s and moved back to his parents’ home in the country, where he serves as a groundskeeper. He’s had other jobs, but ended up losing them because of his anxiety; he got fired from one position at Wal-Mart after suffering a panic attack while on the job.
Now he’s seeing a therapist and is mostly focused on improving his mental health so he can reach a place where he could handle working again. He thinks he might want to go into communications, maybe as a social media manager, but he also knows that without a four-year degree his options are limited. All of which means that he’s delayed making loan payments until further notice.
“When I do eventually get the money to pay the loan I’ll do that,” he says. “But right now, that’s just very far off into the future.”