Most of us have heard about the student loan crisis and its shocking statistics. Millennials who take out student loans graduate with an average of over $28,000 in debt and many are putting off important life milestones like getting married, moving out of their parents’ home, buying a house, and even having kids because they are struggling with their student loan repayment.
But perhaps the part of the student loan crisis that we hear about the least is the mental health crisis that it has created.
Millennials Are More Stressed Than Other Generations
A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that millennials were more likely than any other generation to be stressed and for that stress to have a significant impact on their physical and mental health. Around 30% of millennials said that their stress affects their physical health whereas only 27% of generation Xers, and 25% of boomers said it affect their health.
When it comes to stress’ impact on millennials’ mental health, 37% said that they were suffering because of stress versus 33% of generation Xers, and 23% of boomers. Millennials were also more likely to say that their stress had increased over the past year with 36% of millennials saying that their stress went up versus 30% of generation Xers, and 24% of boomers.
While that study didn't look at the reasons for the respondents’ stress, other studies have shown that there is a significant link between student loans and mental well-being. In a study conducted at the University of South Carolina, it was found that the more student loans you had - the more likely you were to be experiencing mental health problems.
Similarly, a study from 2013 conducted at Northwestern University found that those who had high debt relative to household assets, reported higher levels of stress, depression, and poor self-reported general health. Stress can even cause physical changes in your body, according to the Northwestern study. It found that feeling like you were significantly indebted caused your diastolic blood pressure to rise, which increases the risk of hypertension and stroke.
Something Must Be Done
While college is still a good investment for students since it translates into higher earning potential, student loan debt does apparently affect borrowers significantly after they leave school. If something isn’t done, the student loan crisis could quickly evolve into a full scale mental and physical health crisis that will have significant consequences on millennials as a generation.
Employers Can Help
Employers can play a significant role in reducing the mental health crisis related to student loans. One of the most obvious things that they can do is to begin offering student loan repayment benefit to their employees. These benefits are often monthly disbursements given to employees in order to help them expedite their student loan repayment. These benefits have a dual benefit in that they help companies increase employee retention and recruitment.
But perhaps one of the best benefits is that they reduce the stress that borrowers experience. This doesn't just give companies healthier and happier employees, but it also makes employees more productive. The less time they’re spending worrying about their student loan debt, the more time they have to think about their jobs.
Companies can also help by providing financial education to their employees to help them learn how to best repay debt or by offering professional development courses on how to better manage stress.
Colleges Have a Role to Play
One of the challenges many borrowers face upon leaving college is that they don't understand their loans and their options when it comes to repayment. Colleges should see it as their responsibility to equip their graduates with all the tools and resources they need in order to best manage their student loans.
Colleges should also be doing more to reduce the fees that they're charging students in order to ensure that they don't go into as much student loan debt. After many students exhaust their federal financial aid options through the FAFSA, they turn to private loan options to fill the gap. In today's higher education and lender environment, it is entirely plausible to match tuition costs with student loans, but paying off that debt is another story.
Colleges should provide information and workshops on how to better manage mental health challenges, especially in regards to money and student loans. They should be able to send out realistic and accurate cost of attendance estimates. The list could go on.
The Role of the Government
The government needs to be working to find ways to reduce the amount students have to borrow for school and to make it easier to repay student loans. That could involve caps on tuition increases, more grants for those who come from low-income backgrounds, chances to reduce interest rates (much like private student loan consolidation companies offer), or more opportunities for student loan forgiveness.
Government can also provide incentives to employers to provide student loan repayment benefits. Currently, these benefits are taxed, but making them tax-exempt would encourage more employers to offer the benefits and provide a greater advantage to employees who receive the benefits.
The Bottom Line
It's not surprising that the stress millennials are feeling due to the significant amount of student loan debt they are carrying is causing them mental health problems. We must recognize that the millennial generation’s financial burden is unprecedented and that the mental health ramifications of their debt will have long-term effects. Something must be done now in order to help millennials take control of their debt and minimize their stress to ensure that they’re able to live healthy and happy lives.