Economic issues are usually described in hopelessly abstract terms, with only passing and usually clichéd references to the personal consequences of these policies. Among the most frightening is the threat that people will take their own lives, a trend which has already seen a frightening rise in austerity-stricken parts of Europe. I wrote about it earlier this year after a series of very public suicides and self-immolations in Greece and Italy, but had honestly hoped I wouldn’t have to bring it up again. Then, today, I came across an article from the Huffington Post, about American student debt and the threat of a similar rash of deaths. In it, writers who grapple with the issue of student debt describe how often people write to them threatening suicide, sometimes in incredible detail. As horrific as the topic is, it’s also one which we cannot afford to ignore.

The epidemic of student debt has struck on a worldwide scale. Beyond America’s billion-dollar bubble, there’s the ongoing battles in Quebec, as well as a large rally earlier this week in Chile that brought over a hundred thousand out into the streets against tuition fees. With youth unemployment breaking records in far too many countries, it’s time to admit that the options to pay back these growing debt-loads just aren’t there.

While I know nobody directly driven to take their own life because of their student debts, I know people who’ve dodged creditors for years, fled the country, and more than I can count who simply suffer. It isn’t just the size of these loans which is traumatic – it’s the judgemental moralizations thrown at kids throughout the process. From a very young age until long after one leaves school, these matters are talked about in terms of “success” or “failure”, “hard work” and how one “contributes to society”. This kind of scorn weighs heavily on those who did everything they were “supposed to” only to find years of poverty awaiting them.

Getting an education was supposed to ensure a way out of this kind of poverty, but instead it’s doomed debtors to decades of it. Going to university isn’t something “lazy” people do – it takes years of hard work and a lot of money, which for many goes totally unrewarded. The choices kids make can’t be understood without looking at the context. I remember what it was like going to a west-end high-school. “University” was the mantra, muttered every third word for my whole OAC (former ‘grade 13’). In spite of this, most of my friends who went to trade schools or simply went to work and drank their nights away are far better off financially right now. These kids were sold a bill of goods which society could not deliver, often by those who cared little about what happened to students after their fees were paid. A recent study of American for-profit private schools found that graduates, statistically, see no long-term financial benefit from their degrees (unlike public or non-profit schools). It’s no surprise, then, that they also produce half of the country’s student loan defaults.

The tragic results of personal economic pressures also showed themselves in Germany this week, where a man facing eviction took two civil servants and his girlfriend hostage, eventually killing himself along with all three. As horrifying as acts like this can be, they’re only the tip of a far uglier iceberg where most suffer in silence. For every case where the stressors (evictions, debts, etc) are named, there are thousands more where people see only another tragedy, or don’t hear about it at all. Economic issues like this aren’t just about broad, sweeping policy statements – these are questions that relate directly to the jobs, homes and food supply of millions of people. When these get cut, personal emotional consequences have to be expected, manifested in as many ways as there are people to suffer from them. Suicide is only one way people grapple with these impossible choices, but even the potential for a serious rise in rates should raise serious questions about the policies driving them.

No education, no job, and no balanced budget is worth that price.

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