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.

Jeremy Lucas
Jeremey Lucas. Photo by Lukas Hodge

“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.