Science Just Revealed Something Scary About The Effects of Student Debt

February 3rd 2015

Alicia Lutes

You know the feeling: you're logging onto Sallie Mae (wait, sorry — is it Navient now?) or another student loan organization of your choice and it hits you: anxiety, grief, worry, stress. It comes in waves — maybe you sweat a little, your neck stiffens up, you shake your fist at your "You Have As Many Hours in the Day as Beyoncé" inspirational poster. You feel downright psychosomatic and annoyed as you push your last, barely spare-able pennies towards what remains of your aspirations/delusions of American Dream grandeur (the bill). You're not alone in this feeling — because science has proven the mental and physical effects of student loans. And, oh, they are so real.

In a study conducted by Katrina M. Walsemann, Gilbert C. Geeb, and Danielle Gentilea at the University of South Carolina, the effects of shouldering that high of an economic burden fresh out of undergrad were found to have — wait for it! — an adverse mental and physical affect on students overall. It's almost as if they were saying owing tens of thousands of dollars before ever even having a job was a burden or something. Except, oh wait, that's exactly what they're saying. Depression, anxiety, and other ailments are real, folks!

The study, of course, factored in issues and potential circumstances that might alter said stress points — like familial socioeconomic status, what sort of college they attended (two versus four-year institutions), or the particular degree students earned. But for most of the 25-to-31-year-olds (and currently enrolled students) studied, the result was by and large the same: more money [owed], more problems. With no end of the upward trend in sight — the price of higher education in the U.S. has increased 250 percent in the past 30-plus years, even when adjusting for inflation! — it feels safe to say that Xanax prescriptions amongst the well-educated youth will continue to rise.

In their own words, the researchers found that "cumulative student loans were significantly and inversely associated with better psychological functioning." Which is to say that student loan-generated debt ends up negatively affecting those that owe it, both psychologically and physically speaking. So when you scream out "it hurts, it hurts!" upon hitting submit on your student loan bill (like this particular author does), rest assured knowing that pain is literal least for most of us.

Except in one regard: as it turns out, the study found one interesting bit of data: certain students from poor families — those that, say, have already faced an incredible amount of strife and/or emotional instability in their lives — often performed better when it came to mental health coping mechanisms. "Those who are able to enroll in college despite their early-life disadvantages," the researchers posit, "may be in better mental health or possess personality characteristics that increase their odds of attending college, such as being future-oriented or highly motivated."

Which isn't to say that these students don't feel the stress — a.k.a. not so fast, bootstrap-pulling advocates — just that their own previous life experience has made them better equipped to handle it. To say nothing of those idealists who are able to hold tight to the dream we were all told as children: obtaining an advance degree may serve us in obtaining a higher, more upwardly mobile socioeconomic status (otherwise known as The American Dream, and a good thing if your parents and grandparents are to be believed). But remember, those with the tools to jump over that hurdle? They are far fewer than the rest.

So next time you log in to pay off part of your student loans, give yourself a quick hug as a reminder that you're not crazy: all of this accrued debt really does hurt, literally and metaphorically speaking.