Debt and mental health: a missing puzzle piece

Charles Dickens said that the first suite of night classes in London were “an opening … of doors into higher life for hundreds … who have since shown how prompt and how able they were to pass over the threshold when the bolts were once drawn”.

For well over a decade, there has been debate and protest between those who defend the current funding model in HE (because we have seen more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before), and those who disparage the marketisation of education.

This conversation plays out in similar ways in the sector regarding mental health. Research from Unihealth shows that eight out of ten students currently experience some form of mental illness or distress at university. Previous analysis of the wellbeing of graduates by the (now defunct) Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) found that on average graduates are happier over their lifetime than non-graduates.

There has been more interest recently regarding mental health, driven in part by some of the terrible stories happening around the country regarding student suicides. It is also influenced by generational change. A YouGov survey this year found 88% of older people say they are more comfortable speaking about mental health than they used to be.

Crisis and crossroads

In responding to what is increasingly considered a mental health crisis, Universities UK (UUK) published their Step Change Framework, and Sam Gyimah the Minister for Universities, Science, Research & Innovation has commissioned work by Student Minds and other sector bodies to create a national Mental Health Charter.

UUK’s framework emphasises the need to take a whole-institution approach to mental health, including community and living conditions. It is important to note that many of the most acute mental health problems in universities occur in student residences, and as such, there is a need for a holistic approach. This framework also emphasises the need to align learner analytics with student wellbeing data. If this happens across the sector, then wellbeing interventions could take place at relevant points in a student’s lifecycle.

The missing piece

It may be the case that the higher levels of wellbeing among graduates is influenced by the higher socioeconomic return of higher education. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that graduates are more likely to be employed and in higher-skilled posts than non-graduates. The level of wellbeing may interface with graduates’ better employment prospects, rather than anything intrinsic in the university experience.

Studies in the US have shown that debt and mental health are intimately connected. A study was carried out in 2015 found that: “Student loans are associated with poorer self-rated health and worse psychological functioning”. A US study in 2009 just after the financial downturn further connected the relationship between debt and mental illness concluding “its public health implications are clear”.

Obviously, we do not have the same funding system: debt repayments are staggered according to income in the UK. But we do have student poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds end up borrowing up to £57,000 in loans. Similarly, the NUS Poverty Commission found that the poorest students currently graduate with the highest student loan debt and that low-income students are often reliant on “commercial debt, or carry forward such debt from before their course, which has both a financial and a psychological effect”.

Further research is required into how student debt affects mental health issues. In terms of policy we need to place student wellbeing at the centre of the debate over debt.

The nascent Student Charter should reflect this. A requirement for an institution gaining charter status should be that it reviews the financial support available to students, including how it is allocating funds to eradicate student poverty. The link between increased debt and mental health is a fundamental piece to the mental health puzzle. This is vital for the flourishing of this generation and those to come: that they can cross over the threshold, and thrive.

Ben would like to thank Nicky Ball for her insights and comments on this article.

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