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The Ones We've Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it has been severely under-reported.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Piotr Marcinski/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This story was originally posted on  HuffingtonPost and produced by the independent  Economic Hardship Reporting Project, co-edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Rivlin.

One evening in 2007, Jan Yoder of Normal, Illinois noticed that her son Jason seemed more despondent than usual. Yoder had been a graduate student in organic chemistry at Illinois State University but after incurring $100,000 in student loan debt, he struggled to find a job in his field. Later that night, Jason, 35, left the family’s mobile home. Concerned about her son’s mood, Jan Yoder decided in the early morning hours to go look for him on campus, where a professor she ran into joined her in the search. The two of them discovered his body in one of the labs on campus and called campus police at 8:30AM. 32 minutes later, Jason was declared dead due to nitrogen asphyxiation.

When the story was posted on several different sites in 2007 and 2008, the Internet chatter was not always kind to the dead man. While many expressed great sympathy for Yoder and ranted against the student lending system, others were quick to invoke the “personal responsibility” argument — “it was his fault;” “why did he take out that amount of loans?;” “Mr. Yoder took out those loans . . . he had an obligation to pay them back.” — and denigrate him.

His mother, of course, saw it differently. While she was preparing for Jason’s funeral, student debt collectors were still phoning her about the money her son owed. As reporter David Newbart  wrote in a 2007 article for Chicago Sun Times, she was gruff when confronted by these calls. “You are part of the reason he took his own life,” she told them and then hung up the phone.

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides. More people are being forced into untenable financial circumstances as outstanding student loan debt has  surpassed $1 trillion. And people simply aren’t able to pay all the money they owe. In the past few years, the rate of defaults for federal loans has increased at an alarming rate. According to the Departmentof Education, those recent graduates who began repayments in 2009, 8.8 percent had already defaulted on their federal loans. That compares to 7 percent in 2008. Currently, 36 million Americans have outstanding federal loans. I can’t help but wonder how many of those millions are feeling distressed or suicidal, or how many have attempted suicide because of all that debt hanging over their heads.

I first started appreciating the depth of the problem of suicidal debtors a few years ago, with a  post on my blog, All Education Matters, entitled, “Suicide Among Student Debtors: Who’s Thought About It?” I was stunned by the responses. In comment after comment, people confessed to feeling suicidal. One person wrote, “I was very actively looking into suicide until I got on anti-depressants. Now I have to take happy pills every day to keep the suicidal urges at a minimum level. You are correct to ask the question. Many of the folks who are incredibly deep in law school debt will end up killing themselves. I think, in the next 1-3 years, we are going to see absolutely massive numbers of law school graduate suicides.” Said another: “Yes, I thought about suicide a lot over the past few years. I take anti-depressants and I had been smoking cigarettes for months but I did end up quitting. The big issue with that is I want to be an opera singer so [smoking] was my way of giving up. I’m trying to do what I can to get through this… and praying for an answer.”

 
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