I graduated from New York University with $68,000 in student loan debt. I was nervous and scared. I had a few job opportunities, but nothing that would help me deal with this enormous student debt.
Of course, I knew I had to get my finances together, so I started using the Mint app to track my income, expenses, and debt. After seeing the numbers in black and white, I felt sick to my stomach. How could I have so much debt? How would I pay it off?
Over the next few years, the debt played a significant role in my mental health. I felt depressed and overwhelmed by it. I felt anxious about paying it back. And I felt angry for letting myself get into so much debt from a fancy private school — majoring in the arts, no less.
The Reality of Student Debt and Depression
I’m not alone in this sentiment. Borrowers with high levels of debt reported an decrease in mental well-being, as seen in a study in the National Library of Medicine.
But it doesn’t have to be a losing battle. Here’s how to deal with student debt and depression:
1. Accept Your Reality
I believe much of my financial anxiety and depression stemmed from not wanting to believe how much debt I had accrued. Part of dealing with student debt and depression is accepting that you have the debt.
And remember, you’re not alone. Currently, American students and graduates collectively hold almost $1.6 trillion in student debt, as the Federal Reserve showed.
2. Take Care of Yourself Before Dealing With Your Student Debt
Many people with student debt find themselves focusing solely on their debt, instead of taking care of themselves. However, this is not the ideal way to handle debt.
If you find yourself depressed as a result of your student debt: “The first step to coping is to examine what thought processes or actions are making you depressed,” says Brian Wind, Ph.D., co-chair of the American Psychological Association, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, and a clinical executive at JourneyPure.
“By identifying why you feel the way you feel, you can start to actually work through those emotions,” Wind adds. “Then, start talking about the way you feel with a trusted loved one. Talking about emotions like depression helps take away the power they have over us.”
However, it is not as simple as talking about debt to relieve the stress. It is also best to take action to deal with your student debt.
“If you put all of your time and energy into thinking about your debt or scrambling to get out of it, your depression is only going to get worse.”
“Once you’ve identified and have begun expressing your emotions, start taking small actionable steps,” says Wind. “For example, say affirmations to yourself like ‘I am enough’ or ‘My debt doesn’t define my value as a person.’ Make sure you’re doing basic self-care activities: Get enough sleep, exercise, eat a healthy diet, and set aside time for recreational activities that you enjoy.”
3. Seek Help
Depending on your level of depression, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist. I knew I needed additional help when I found myself in tears every day, frustrated by my situation.
Consider going to a community clinic or a local college for counseling to find affordable therapy. I went to a local graduate school and was able to negotiate $5 therapy sessions. The students got experience, and I was able to receive help, even when I was low on funds.
If you’re feeling suicidal as a result of your debt, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), for immediate help. This number is free to call and operators are available 24/7 to help people in distress. Everything discussed with these operators is completely confidential, and they can offer resources that can help you through any crisis.
4. Realize Your Net Worth Is Not Your Self-Worth
Being in so much debt can make you feel small. In this society, many of us can feel judged based on how much we earn and how much money we have. As a result, you can feel, well, pretty worthless.
But it’s crucial to remember that your net worth is not your self-worth. You’re more than just your debt, so don’t let it define you.
Will you have to make adjustments to your life to deal with student debt? Yes. But it doesn’t make you a good or bad person. Forgive yourself for whatever self-image you may have related to debt.
5. Create a Plan to Deal With Student Debt
The depression that arises from student loan debt may feel like a sort of helplessness: How will I ever get out of debt? I’ll never be able to pay this back. I don’t know what to do.
If you’re thinking these things, you’re not alone. I’ve been there. But to move past the depression and the overwhelming feeling of being in debt, you have to create a plan to deal with student debt. Start by:
- Tallying up your total balance.
- Checking your current interest rates.
- Looking at your income and expenses — how much do you have left over each month?
- Deciding how much you can commit toward debt each month.
- Deciding that you are done with debt. You will pay it off.
- Looking into repayment options. These may include signing up for an income-driven plan for federal loans or refinancing private loans.
While seeing the numbers may sting, coming up with a plan can ultimately be empowering.
The Bottom Line
Student loans are no fun, but they don’t have to define or ruin your life. You are so much more than that. Debt can always be repaid — as long as you have a plan.
Additional reporting by Emma Finnerty and Lauren Shayo.