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Debt, mental health and the young


I have to confess a personal interest. In a few days time, my son, like many thousands of others, will be going to university. Distressingly, this means beginning what may well be a lifetime of debt. The psychological consequences are potentially serious.

A new survey of young people aged 18 to 24 suggests a large proportion experience significant concerns about money. In the survey the average debt was nearly £3000, before commitments such as student loans or mortgages were added. The average student loan balance is £25,505.

It is unsurprising that many of the young people surveyed felt that their debts were a "heavy burden". It seems, from the available data, that student debt has not deterred young people from going to university, but it may well make them anxious during and after their studies.

It’s good to see young people making their way in life, and it’s very good to go to university. But the consequences of such debt are worrying.

Debts can affect our mental health in many ways. Practically, when we do not have enough money to pay for all the things that are essential, like food, rent, bills, travel etc., our lives can become very difficult. When we cannot make the minimum repayments on the debts themselves, things become more difficult still.

As the young people in this survey reported, debt can be a persistent source of anxiety. It can also be a source of shame and regret. If we are in financial difficulties, we may feel ashamed and not want to talk to others about it.

To my way of thinking, these are the ‘normal’ rather than ‘abnormal’ psychological consequences of living with financial uncertainty. If I were pressed, I’d suggest that the ‘abnormality’ lies in our present economic, social and political system, rather than in the minds of young people.

My son is fortunate. Not (despite his own beliefs) because he has inalienable personal gifts, but because I have had a steady job for 28 years, and I can act as a guarantor (and benefactor).

Not all of us are so lucky. Even in a rich and developed nation – perhaps particularly in a rich and developed nation – such things as personal debt and the inequity between neighbours can be tough.

That is why, in my opinion, a commitment to social justice should go hand in hand with the application of psychological science.