Financial stress and mental health among higher education students in the UK up to 2018: rapid review of evidence

J Epidemiol Community Health. 2019 Oct;73(10):977-984. doi: 10.1136/jech-2019-212154. Epub 2019 Aug 12.


Introduction: In the United Kingdom and many other countries, debt accrued during higher education has increased substantially in recent decades. The prevalence of common mental health problems has also increased alongside these changes. However, it is as yet unclear whether there is an association between financial stress and mental health among higher education students.

Methods: We conducted a rapid review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Eligible studies were English-language publications testing the association between any indicator of financial stress and mental health among higher education students in the UK. Papers were located through a systematic search of PsychINFO, PubMed and Embase up to November 2018.

Results: The search strategy yielded 1272 studies-9 met the inclusion criteria. A further two were identified through hand-searching. The median sample size was 408. Only three of seven studies found an association between higher debt and worse mental health. There was a consistent cross-sectional relationship between worse mental health and both experience of financial difficulties (seven of seven studies) and debt worry/financial concern (four of five studies), though longitudinal evidence was mixed and limited to six studies.

Conclusion: Among higher education students in the UK, there is little evidence that the amount of debt is associated with mental health. However, more subjective measures of increased financial stress were more consistently associated with worse mental health outcomes. Nevertheless, the identified evidence was judged to be weak; further research is required to examine whether links between financial stress and mental health outcomes are robust and causal in nature.

Keywords: Debt; financial stress; higher education; mental health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Financing, Personal*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Health*
  • Prevalence
  • Students / psychology*
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology
  • Young Adult