Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

We were thrilled to welcome back Dr Dominique Thompson for the final part of our CPD-accredited webinar series for university and college staff, with a session on the impact of financial risk on student mental health.

Dom is the UK’s leading expert on student mental health, as well as an award-winning GP, TEDx speaker, author and educator. She has over 20 years of clinical experience caring for students. She covered:

  • Student motives and consequences of risk-taking behaviour
  • The link between money and student mental health, and the impact of financial risk
  • What can support staff do?

Here’s a summary and the recording of the session.

Risk, money and mental health: a complex relationship

We know from research that there’s a crucial link between money worries and student mental health, and the pandemic has had a negative impact.

Interesting to note though is that it’s not the amount of debt that’s a factor in the level of mental health issues caused by financial worries – the relationship between money and mental health is much more complicated than this. 

For instance, a student who might appear to have only a small amount of debt could be experiencing a high level of stress about it.

What is good mental health?

First things first, good mental health can be defined as ‘a state of wellbeing in which you feel and function well’. 

It’s not about feeling happy 24/7 – this is impossible because our mental health changes all the time! Everybody has ‘mental health’ and experiences bad days; sometimes we need help to stay well.

Student motives and consequences of risk-taking behaviour

Before diving into how to support students with risky financial behaviour and its impact on student mental health, let’s first consider risk-taking  in general – including students’ motives for taking risks and possible consequences.

The biological response: risk-taking and adrenaline

Our brains continue developing until our late 20s. And while more mature students can of course take risks too, it’s important to remember that university students in their late teens/ early twenties that take risks are making these decisions while their brain is still developing.

Risk-taking gives the brain a genuine, physiological rush of adrenaline, especially when we’re young. For reference, the age when we feel the most excitement from risk-taking and are least able to mediate and control it (because that part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – hasn’t yet developed) is 14.38 years!

For support staff, it’s helpful to understand the biology of this and use it as a frame of reference for what drives risk-taking behaviour in students. This includes decisions around money and gambling/gaming, as well as alcohol, drugs, sex, food and self-harm.

Why do students engage in risk-taking behaviours?

There are a number of reasons why students may engage with risky behaviour and it’s important to be mindful of this. Students may take risks because the decision-making process is out of their control or to cope with difficult times. Some possible reasons are:

  • For fun or to create a distraction, thrill, feeling of courage, etc.
  • As a coping mechanism
  • Because of a mental health issue (e.g. bipolar disorder)
  • To harm themselves or self-destruct 
  • Because some groups are more likely to engage in risk-taking than others

Why do risky behaviours matter?

Of course, the consequences of risky behaviour can be very serious, including:

  • Accidents and injuries
  • Death
  • Suicidal behaviours
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • STIs
  • Academic impact
  • Criminal behaviour / criminal justice system
  • Social / career impact
  • Interference with daily life / activities / relationships / sleep / mood
  • Financial loss / debt

Signs of impact on student mental health

Some of the signs for support staff to look out for in students, which could indicate that their mental health is being impacted by risky behaviours are:

  • Erratic mood / behaviour
  • Exhaustion / sleepiness
  • Not turning up / underperforming / failing
  • Isolation
  • Poor self-care / hygiene
  • ‘Under the influence’
  • Anxiety / depression symptoms
  • Injuries / covering up body parts 
  • Money worries / theft / criminal behaviour
  • Other students raising concern

For some of these, you might only need to be concerned if you notice persistent or consistent changes – for example, most of us will have had an off day with personal hygiene at some point!

Money, student mental health and the impact of financial risk

Money and mental health are intrinsically linked and the impact travels in both directions. Money worries and financial stress can negatively affect mental health and cause issues. On the other hand, if you have an underlying mental health condition, this can mean you struggle to earn, manage or keep on top of your finances, triggering a downward spiral.

How do money worries affect students?

Money worries can affect students in a number of ways. These include some well-known ways, such as guilt, shame or embarrassment, anger, anxiety and depression. 

However, money worries can also manifest in some ways where the link can be less obvious at first glance. For example, sleep issues, addiction, relationship issues, work / study problems and impact on physical health.

Sources of financial stress for students

Student life presents unique financial challenges and opportunities. Examples of the sources of financial stress that students have reported are:

  • Debts from student loans, fees and overdrafts
  • Course costs / travel
  • Living costs
  • Keeping up with other students’ lifestyles 
  • Health costs (e.g. prescriptions / travel to appointments)
  • Impact from mental health issues (such as overspending caused by bipolar disorder, food guilt from anorexia, debt from addiction)
  • Spending on others

Where money, risk and student mental health overlap

As this staff webinar series has focused on, there are a number of financial activities that carry risk and therefore overlap with and can have real repercussions for student mental health, such as:

Watch the session recording from 21:18 to listen to Dom talk through the case history of a student who came to her seeking support for a gambling addiction.

What can support staff do?

If you’re worried about a student, it’s important to:

  • Approach the student – making sure to focus on them, not you e.g. ‘I’ve noticed X… and I’m worried about you”. Even if they don’t feel ready to talk, they’ll recognise that you’re a safe place and they can come back to you for help
  • Ensure no judgment or blame – let them know that no topic is off-limits e.g. ‘There is nothing that you could do or say that I wouldn’t want to hear about and help you with.’
  • Offer compassion – show empathy and let them know you care
  • Offer positive and sustainable ways they can cope – help them develop life skills to deal with money and risk
  • Encourage them to try ‘positive risk taking’ – if they need an adrenaline rush or a distraction, guide them towards activities that will build their self-esteem and confidence and give them a more fulfilling life
  • Signpost and mention available resources and support – even if you haven’t got the answer, you can help them find someone who has
  • Speak to a relevant colleague – with the student’s consent if possible, if they are high risk

3 actions to reduce the impact of financial risk on student mental health

  • Recognise that ‘it happens’ and the student isn’t alone. At the same time, be careful to convey that the issue they’re having is not a normal part of life – rather, it is a common issue that many others face, too, so they know they’re not alone in their struggle
  • Educate the student and support them to develop essential, sustainable money skills through financial education
  • Provide resources and support

Getting help and resources

Available resources for students include:

Final word

The takeaway message from the session is for support staff to always ‘listen, believe and give hope’. 

  • Listen – you might be the first person they’ve spoken to so it’s important to let them know that you’re there for them and they can come to you e.g. ‘I’m always happy to listen and I want to support you. Talk to me.’
  • Believe – take what they are saying seriously and give them validation
  • Give hope – often students will only seek help when they feel they’re at a crisis point so giving hope is imperative e.g. ‘I feel optimistic we can help you with this’

Watch the recording

If you have any questions or comments for Dom, you can email her or contact her via Twitter and Instagram.

Don’t forget to sign up to our staff email newsletter to find out about upcoming staff webinars and get free financial wellbeing resources to share with students.

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