College students in financial debt are much more likely to experience mental health problems, including depression and alcohol dependency, according to a new study by the University of Southampton and Solent National Health Service (NHS) Trust in the U.K.
The researchers found that symptoms of anxiety and alcohol dependence worsened over time for students struggling to pay their bills. In fact, the more worry students had over debt, the higher the overall levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Researchers also found that mental health issues and alcohol dependency predicted higher levels of financial stress.
“The findings suggest a vicious cycle whereby anxiety and problem drinking exacerbate financial difficulties, which then go on to increase anxiety and alcohol intake. Interventions which tackle both difficulties at the same time are therefore most likely to be effective,” said study leader Dr. Thomas Richardson, a visiting academic at the University of Southampton and Principal Clinical Psychologist at Solent NHS Trust.
“Coming to university can be a stressful and daunting time for young people and finances can cause a lot of worry. 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,” said Richardson, who has conducted staff training at universities on debt and mental health.
The study involved more than 400 first-year undergraduate students from universities across the UK.
At four different time points during the first year, students were asked to assess a range of financial factors including family affluence, recent financial difficulties (for example being unable to afford bills or having to borrow money), and attitudes towards their finances.
Because the students were surveyed at several points during the year, researchers were able to examine which came first: financial difficulties or poor mental health.
The researchers also found that 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.
“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 and it was usually my academic studies. It was a vicious cycle,” said a surveyed student who had been studying occupational therapy but had to quit due to depression and severe financial problems.
The study is published online in the Community Mental Health Journal.
Source: University of Southampton