The cost of living crisis is not only dominating the news but also dominating the minds of the millions who will be affected by it.
As a university student starting my second year, I am one of those people. I have spent weeks sitting at my desk, trying to figure out how I am going to afford to live this year. With the price of everything rising, from energy to groceries, students across the country are scrambling in an attempt to figure out how to make ends meet this year, at the grave expense of their mental health.
Work-Study-Life Balance: Is it possible?
I was fortunate enough to speak to Dr. Thomas Richardson, a clinical psychologist and expert on the relationship between financial difficulties and mental health problems. When I asked him how financial stress affects our mental health, he shared that “higher financial stress is linked to an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts.”
“Those in financial hardship are more likely to have worsening mental health over time.” — Dr. Thomas Richardson
I, like so many students, have a student loan that doesn’t even cover my rent, let alone other essentials. As a result, I end up relying on my family, who are also facing the effects of the cost of living crisis — for which I am grateful and recognise the privilege I have from this, despite it not being easy for my family. The harsh reality is many students aren’t able to lean on their families for financial support, and in some cases actually hold the responsibility of supporting their family financially.
This leads to students taking up part-time jobs to continue living at university, working in the time not spent studying, leaving little room for focusing on wellbeing, socialising with friends, or purely enjoying time as a student. I’m not saying students shouldn’t get jobs altogether, I’m simply saying they shouldn’t have to in order to make ends meet. This juggling act of balancing study and work means students risk both their ability to excel in their education, and their mental wellbeing.
“What might be especially hard for students is struggling to top up income through work as this might be hard to fit around studies, and research has shown having to work lots of hours on top of studying can take its toll on students in terms of mental health.” — Dr. Thomas Richardson
University has an accessibility problem
I have lost sleep over the past few weeks, calculating the minimum budget I can spend and continue to live on, how cheap I can make my weekly food shop, and ensuring I have an emergency fund in case I lose my job, or bills skyrocket. I googled ‘can’t afford university’ to see what would pop up, seeking peace of mind more than anything. UCAS held the top results. I clicked on a page titled ‘what you can do if student finance isn’t enough’. It discussed bursaries and scholarships, trying to find the cheapest accommodation, and asking for help from family (which I have already established is not an option for many students).
It was the last suggestion that really threw me off guard: “consider an alternative study path”.
Of course, university isn’t the right path for everyone. I have friends who didn’t go to university and are the happiest I have ever seen them, and there are many other viable options. University is not the right choice for a lot of people. But, simultaneously, university is the right choice for many others.
Is it right for those who choose university to be advised to pursue something else, because they cannot afford to support themselves financially, or enter mounting student debt for a degree?
Access to university has become a privilege that few can afford. Some may agree that should be the case, but I believe higher education is a wonderful, enriching experience and something that everyone should have the opportunity to choose.
Money vs. Mental Health
In my experience, our society has become increasingly obsessed with money-making and hustle culture, placing immense value on our careers. Everything we do must be a potential income revenue. So, unless your degree is a requirement for your career, many will try to dissuade potential students by suggesting it’s a waste of money and time. Learning simply for the pleasure of learning is no longer a good enough reason to pursue higher education, particularly when it is so dear.
This placed importance on the future monetary benefit of choosing higher education, alongside the cost of going to university in the first place, which is heightened drastically during the cost of living crisis.
Because of the cost of living crisis, I have been trying to find ways to take control of my mental wellbeing, in an attempt to stay mindful. Dr. Richardson shared with me “research suggests that how much you stress and worry about your finances is more important than objectively how much you are financially struggling.”
When I asked him what mental health practices and exercises he recommends, this is what he shared with me: “It is important to talk about it: you are not alone in struggling and it is nothing to be ashamed of. […] Try to socialise and plan activities which are free or cheap. It doesn’t cost anything to go for a run in the park but it can really lift your mood.”
These upcoming months are going to be difficult for many across the UK, and millions of students will be facing the fiscal and psychological impact of the cost of living crisis. I hope conversations around the financial impact of student living continue, and we start to see new and improved support streams for students, both from the government and student mental health specialists.