The Impact Of Student Debt On Mental Health



At the beginning of 2022, South Africa’s 26 public universities were owed a collective R16,5 billion. While the consequences of student debt on universities have been contemplated, very seldom does the discourse centre on the students who owe this money.




The well known consequence of owing a university a large sum of money is that students are unable to graduate. The University of Witwatersrand (WITS) estimates that in 2022, 120,000 students may not graduate due to their student debt. This group of students owe institutions around R7 Billion.

While the South African government does provide students with bursaries through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas), it does not cover all students. In 2022, the scheme provided bursaries to 708,110 students studying at public higher education institutions from poor and working-class backgrounds.

The missing middle refers to students whose household income exceeds the R350,000 per annum income threshold which disqualifies them from receiving Nsfas bursaries. Many of the students who fall within this missing middle category will need to find an alternative way to fund their tertiary education journey.

The cost of this tertiary education journey does not only consist of tuition fees. Students may need money for transportation, meals, textbooks, laptops, study materials and even a place to stay.

Students who don't qualify for funding have to rely on financial assistance from their caregivers, take out student loans or have to find a job to navigate the challenges student debt brings. Each of these options also has consequences.

Skills Portal spoke to Palesa Gloria Magugu from the Students' Health and Welfare Centres Organisation SHAWCO to gain a greater understanding of the impact student debt could have on the mental health of students.

Magugu explains that the mounting costs associated with debt can harm the mental health of students and their participation at university. This is because having debt is a major stress factor in the lives of individuals.

In some cases, stress can be a good thing and provide us with the motivation to complete tasks and meet deadlines. However, distress is when the stress exceeds an individual's limits and negatively affects their mental health.

Any kind of distressful situation is bound to negatively impact a student's participation in university

They explained that stress factors like student debt in particular can serve as discouragement or demotivation towards completing your degree 

Student debt won't only affect their participation and academic performance at university. This debt remains after a student has left university. In some cases, this debt could delay life events that they may want to experience, including starting a family and the ability to purchase a home.

Magugu says institutions of higher learning can and must perform a crucial role in assisting students through the mental health challenges they may encounter due to student debt. They can do this by creating awareness around student health and supporting students. 

One way this could be achieved could be through providing students with life skills courses and encouraging a culture of wellness. This culture of wellness must encourage students to be productive and practice sustainable behaviour.

One example of providing life coaching could involve a course on the topic of time management.

This type of programme can assist students to increase their efficiency and productivity when completing tasks which could prevent them from becoming overwhelmed and being put in a state of distress. This could be extremely beneficial to students working part-time jobs.

Magugu explains that people are often less overwhelmed by the challenges they face when presented with possible solutions to overcome them. However, the people in positions of power at universities must be well informed about mental health challenges faced by students to provide effective solutions.

Universities and institutions are beautifully created to provide students with a fulfilling purpose and that is not being utilised because we are not broadening our perspective

Magugu concludes that the majority of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are relying on education for success. They grow up with all sorts of obstacles in their path to success and have fought all of their lives to overcome these obstacles.

The danger of student debt is that students are encountering further obstacles at the institutions they are relying upon to aid their success, which ultimately could create a sense of hopelessness.

SHAWCO is a student-run youth development group affiliated with the University of Cape Town (UCT) that aims to practise and promote responsible citizenship in South Africa. They do this by enrolling student volunteers in health, education and social entrepreneurship initiatives in under-served communities across the Cape Flats in the Western Cape.

Students who are struggling with mental health challenges are encouraged to contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). SADAG offers a 24-hour toll-free helpline on 0800 456 789 assisting students facing these challenges.





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