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Tackling the ‘vicious cycle’ of financial challenges and poor mental health

Starting college can be stressful. Students need to navigate a new environment, adapt to a different style of learning, and—for many—live on their own for the first time. There are also new financial obligations, such as paying tuition fees and rent and managing one’s budget, which can create additional pressure. Amid all these changes and new challenges, it’s important for undergraduate students to make sure that they’re taking care of their mental health.

It's well established that financial issues are linked to poor mental health in students, and a recently published survey of undergraduates in the United Kingdom—where tuition fees have skyrocketed in the recent years and grants to cover living costs for underprivileged students have been scrapped—offers students a timely reminder to watch out for potential problems. “You might not be able to change some of your finances, but getting help with financial management is key so that it does not affect your mental health,” writes study first author Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Solent National Health Service Trust in the United Kingdom, in an email to Science Careers.

A vicious cycle

“Financial difficulties appear to lead to poor mental health in students with the possibility of a vicious cycle occurring,” the authors write in the paper. This conclusion arises from a survey following the experiences of more than 450 British first-year undergraduate students across all disciplines over the course of a year. At the beginning of the survey period, the authors found that students who reported having a harder time paying their bills also reported greater signs of poor global mental health, overall stress, anxiety, depression, and alcohol dependence. The negative impact of these early struggles to pay the bills seemed to persist over time, correlating with greater anxiety and alcohol dependence later on during the survey period. The authors also found evidence that students’ mental health may affect their financial situations: Poorer global mental health or greater alcohol dependence at the beginning of the survey correlated with greater difficulties paying the bills later on.

The results of the survey also suggest a lasting negative impact of debt—which many students incur by taking out loans to cover tuition fees and living expenses—on mental health. Students who reported worrying about debt at the beginning of the survey experienced greater anxiety, overall stress, and poorer global mental health both at the beginning and the end of the survey.

Overall, Richardson says, the study suggests that “if you are struggling with, say, global mental health and also struggling to pay the bills, … one will probably fuel the other.” Eva Selenko, a senior lecturer in work psychology at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the study, notes that another message potentially emerging from the study “would be a rather simple one: try not to get too worked up by your student loan now, as this is bad for your mental health. Which does not mean you should ignore it, but it needs to be dealt with, with a clear head,” she writes in an email to Science Careers.

These main take-home messages are valuable, even though, as both Richardson and Selenko warn, the findings must be interpreted with caution because the respondents may not be representative of the broader student population, and the multiple statistical analyses that were run may have increased the risk for false positives. “This study is very important as it highlights a key factor”—financial issues—“in the development of mental health disorders in the university student population,” writes Teresa Evans, the director of the Office of Career Development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, in an email to Science Careers. Given the increase in student debt in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Selenko adds, “[e]very study that highlights the mental health consequences of debt is to be highly welcomed, as debt influences well-being (and through that possibly also future career chances).”

Get help on all fronts

For students who find themselves struggling with financial challenges and mental health concerns, there’s help out there, Richardson emphasizes. These days, in the United Kingdom at least, “most universities have health or counseling services and financial advice; if you think your mental health is affecting your finances or vice versa, go to both.”

The best approach to prevent issues from spiraling out of control is to be proactive, Evans says. If you have just begun your studies, it can be helpful to discuss your future loan repayment plans with a financial adviser at the school, if possible, or an external, certified adviser, she recommends. If you find yourself under financial pressure at any time during your studies, reach out to someone with expertise in financial planning, ideally in educational loans, Evans adds. In the United States, for example, most university offices where you pay your tuition fees can provide some guidance about general debt management, she notes.

You should also find out what your university’s student health and counseling centers have to offer—and don’t hesitate to seek their support at the first signs of trouble, Evans adds. “Feeling a bit more stressed than usual, struggling to feel motivated to engage with others, finding yourself less interested in things that used to excite you, all of these are examples of indicators that could result in a deeper problem if left unaddressed,” she writes. In the United Kingdom, Selenko adds, “most universities that [charge] tuition fees also have excellent support structures in place for students with mental health issues. The most important thing is not to be shy and to make use of them.”

Although some support systems are already in place at many institutions, by suggesting a vicious cycle between financial and mental health issues, the study also points to a need for universities to take a more holistic approach in helping students who may be struggling. “[F]or best outcomes you need to tackle both” issues simultaneously, Richardson writes in his email. He encourages universities to establish stronger links between the different support services they offer. Universities should also raise awareness among support staff, tutors, and students, he adds. “If you have a stand on finances and mental health as part of a mental health awareness week, this will give students permission to ask for help,” Richardson says.

“[M]ore support can be put into place for students through expanding career and student success centers to include mental health, wellness, and even financial advising services,” Evans agrees. “The more that students can be empowered to seek out these resources ..., the more effective the university will be in ensuring that the students are retained and successful.”