(NerdWallet) — At a staggering $1.76 trillion, student debt is among the largest debts in the U.S. — second only to mortgages — affecting over 43 million Americans, according to federal data. And it’s taking a toll on borrowers’ mental and physical well-being.
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine links higher student debt to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and related conditions. The authors of its 2022 report concluded that as student debt piles up, the health risk to borrowers could undermine the health benefits of postsecondary education.
In addition to long-term effects on physical health, the debt burden also puts a strain on borrowers’ mental health.
Among borrowers on track to receive Public Service Loan Forgiveness with 37-48 student loan payments remaining, 18% reported suicidal thoughts, per a 2022 study by the Student Borrower Protection Center. According to the study, this is at least double the percentage of those who noted suicidal thoughts with fewer remaining payments, or who had already reached forgiveness.
Similar results were found in a survey by the Education Trust, a nonprofit education advocacy group, that looked at the disproportionate impact of student debt on Black borrowers. Of the 1,272 Black borrowers surveyed, 64% said student debt had a negative impact on their mental health. When interviewed, respondents mentioned experiencing a “loss of confidence, high levels of stress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” according to a summary of the 2021 study.
Given the impact of debt on borrowers’ well-being, anyone feeling burdened by student loans should find ways to manage their mental health as well as their finances.
How to cope with severe stress due to student debt
1. Find community
A support system can be a difference maker if debt leaves you feeling alone, ashamed or full of regret.
“Having a community helps students and past students feel connected to people who are going through similar situations,” said Katherine Street, a Lexington, South Carolina-based mental health clinician with TimelyMD, a virtual student health care platform. “At a minimum, it gives them support that might have felt unconquerable to get through alone.”
Street, seeing a common theme of self-blame with regard to financial struggles, says that shame can leave you feeling like an outlier. Instead of hiding, realize that you can get through this. You’re a part of a larger group of borrowers facing a similar struggle.
2. Fully understand your financial situation
Ashley Agnew, a Dartmouth, Massachusetts-based certified financial therapist with investment management firm Centerpoint Advisors, said student debt stress can often show up as an “out of sight, out of mind” relationship with money. Completely avoiding your finances is one way financial distress can manifest itself, she explains.
But without taking the difficult step of looking at your finances — total debt, monthly expenses and monthly income — you can’t create a realistic plan to get out.
In fact, a common piece of advice given by financial experts to those overwhelmed by student debt and severe stress is to create a personalized money plan. But it isn’t something you have to do alone.
3. Work with an expert
A licensed therapist can help you process a lot of the thoughts, feelings and emotions that come with severe stress, offering strategies to cope while you work on your finances.
Certified financial planners, or CFPs, will work with you to create a plan. This could involve diving into the details of your spending and exploring your student loan repayment and refinancing options to land on a unique strategy that helps you manage it all.
Similarly, you can work with a certified financial therapist for a blend of therapeutic strategies to help you deal with financial stress and financial strategies so you can better manage your student debt.
For example, visualization or “imagery” — a psychological technique used to improve the chances of achieving a goal — can be used in combination with budgeting, aggressive debt payoff strategies and other healthy financial habits. Financial planning paired with visualization, according to Agnew, can open the borrower’s eyes to a more positive financial future by showing them what’s possible.
Many licensed experts come with a fee, but some schools and companies may offer mental health and financial counseling at little to no cost for qualifying members. If you work for an employer, start by contacting your human resources department to see what benefits may be available to you. Students can also reach out to their school’s student services department.
Last, if you experience suicidal thoughts or ideations, please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, by calling 988 on your phone.