Student debt worries causing depression and alcohol dependency, new research finds

Study's leader says findings suggest 'a vicious cycle' whereby anxiety and problem drinking 'exacerbate financial difficulties'

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Tuesday 09 August 2016 11:26 BST

Students who experience financial difficulties and worry about debt have a higher chance of suffering from depression and alcohol dependency, new research has found.

Conducted by the University of Southampton and Solent NHS Trust, the study showed symptoms of anxiety and alcoholism worsened over time for those who struggled to pay the bills, while those who were more stressed about graduate debt had higher levels of stress and depression.

The study asked more than 400 undergraduate freshers from across the UK to assess a range of financial factors, including family affluence, recent financial difficulties, and attitudes towards their finances at four time points across their first year, allowing researchers to examine which came first: financial difficulties or poor mental health.

The study also found students who had considered not going to university or had considered abandoning their studies for financial reasons had a greater deterioration in mental health over time.

Leader of the study and visiting academic at Southampton University, Dr Thomas Richardson, described how the findings suggest “a vicious cycle” whereby anxiety and problem drinking “exacerbate financial difficulties,” which then go on to increase anxiety and alcohol intake. He said: “Interventions which tackle both difficulties at the same time are therefore most likely to be effective.”

One occupational therapy student told researchers how he had been forced to quit university because of depression and not being able to support himself financially. He said: “When I was not very well, I was not able to work part-time, so was unable to supplement my income during university. Having financial difficulties increased my day-to-day stress levels and something usually had to give - it was usually my academic studies. It was a vicious cycle.”

Students and the wider higher education community have already been speaking out and campaigning against the rising cost of university as tuition fees rise, maintenance grants are axed, and the Tories make a retrospective hike in student loan repayments.

According to the Sutton Trust, English graduates are leaving university with substantially higher levels of debt than those from any other English-speaking nation.

Dr Richardson, who has been conducting staff training at English universities on debt and mental health, acknowledged how starting university can be “a stressful and daunting time” for young people where finances can cause worry. He said: “We might not be able to change how much debt students are in, but we can work with them to help them manage their finances and worries about money in order to mitigate the impact of these worries on mental health.”

Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware, the alcohol education charity, acknowledged how alcohol can have a temporary, positive impact on mood, but warned: “Regular, excessive drinking can have long-term implications for students’ mental health.”

She continued: “Alcohol is a depressant and can disrupt the delicate balance of chemicals that affect mood. This can lead to increased anxiety and stress, and even depression.”

The rise in mental health issues among students is a growing problem in the UK and has been widely-reported in recent months. According to a report put together for the vice-chancellor of York University in May, comparing 2014 to 2015, 80 per cent of UK universities highlighted a noticeable increase in complex mental health crises among their student population.

According to ambulance call-out figures - from 1 January to 8 February 2016 alone - from the 24 emergency call-outs the university received, half were for self-harm or suicide attempts. Last year, 43 out of 134 emergency call-outs were for self-harm or suicide attempts.

A staggering 63 per cent of students also told specialist student loan lender, Future Finance, they are worrying about their finances all the time or very often, something which is set to increase with the rise of tuition fees.

Shortly after this survey, figures from the ONS revealed the number of student suicides across England and Wales to have soared to their highest level since 2007; there were 130 suicides among both nations’ full-time students aged 18 and over in 2014, with the number considerably higher among men (97). In In 2007, there were 75 suicides.

Ulster University’s Professor Siobhan O’Neill described to a wellbeing conference in June that student life today is “fraught with loneliness and anxiety,” as she addressed the issues of self-harm, alcohol, and suicide, presenting, for the first time, findings from a study of 355 suicides in young people aged under 25 years in Northern Ireland.

She told the conference young people who die by suicide are “somewhat different” from the older age groups, and explained: “Over half will have had a prior attempt; around 64 per cent of the males will have used alcohol at the time of death, and a third of females who die by suicide in this group are students.”

Student finance site Save the Student also recently revealed how students are being “short-changed” by the UK finance system as they scramble to find an extra £3,000 a year amid soaring living costs, something which is driving desperate students to gamble and sell used underwear and laughing gas in order to make ends meet.

If you’re a student and feel you need help or support while at university, contact your university’s student services or students’ union advice service. You can also find out more about mental health support at Student Minds and Drinkaware

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