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Financial stress and mental health among higher education students in the UK up to 2018: rapid review of evidence
  1. Tayla McCloud1,
  2. David Bann2
  1. 1 Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2 Centre for Longitudinal Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Tayla McCloud, Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London W1T 7NF, UK; t.mccloud{at}


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.

  • Debt
  • financial stress
  • mental health
  • higher education

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  • Contributors Both authors worked together in planning this project and preparing the manuscript. TM conducted the search, paper screening and data extraction.

  • Funding This work was originally funded by Blackbullion ( These funders had no role in this review beyond the original brief—the design, screening, analysis and preparation of the manuscript for this review were completed by the authors independently of Blackbullion. TM is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council. DB is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/M001660/1) and The Academy of Medical Sciences/Wellcome Trust (‘Springboard Health of the Public in 2040’ award: HOP001/1025).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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