CM: The Impact of Income: Post-Secondary Students’ Mental Health

January 18, 2023

By Alejandra Hasbun, Practicum Student 


Income affects every aspect of a person’s life. It can alter choices in everyday decisions, for better or worse. For post-secondary students, not having enough income to meet basic needs is an extremely heavy burden to carry. Not only do they have to worry about managing the stress of school, but also about not having enough money to eat a proper meal, struggling to pay for tuition and rent, and engaging in a social life. These factors also cause time scarcity, which altogether can be so overwhelming it produces severe mental health issues for post-secondary students. 

Income affects food security 

Having a good healthy meal is strongly linked to a person being able to perform at their mental best (Firth et al., 2020). Most student diets circle around the idea of eating anything cheap and easy (Vadeboncoeur, 2015). People could argue that this is due to strict time factors, but it is also because it is the only option affordable to them. Food prices are increasing by 5 to 7 percent in 2022, making food even less accessible (Dalhousie University, 2022). Students have been struggling so much financially that they have reached out to food banks at unprecedented levels, which means they are not just looking for cheap food anymore, they are looking for food support. The University of Alberta has 200 new students requiring food bank services as of September 2022, increasing 73 percent since 2019 (Anchan, 2022). A lot of universities in Canada offer food banks for their students, which is a helpful act. However, the mere idea that a student does not have enough money to buy groceries because of how high other expenses are is outrageous. How are students expected to focus on learning when they are worried about a basic need like food? 

Income affects students with children 

People with children who study not only have to worry about sustaining themselves financially but also their families. It would be extremely hard for a person concerned about feeding their children or affording quality childcare to focus on school and manage to get good grades or stay enrolled. This will inevitably cause the overall well-being of the student to decline, and their mental health could be affected. A parent with poor mental health may struggle to provide good care for their family, which can impact the family’s overall health (Wolicki, 2021). Children with no access to quality care can have an increased risk of developmental challenges, which can cause later issues in school focus and achievements (Alexander, 2017). 

Income affects Social Life 

Having a healthy social life is an essential part of any human being’s life, people are wired to connect and interact with others (Penttila, 2019). Restaurants play a key role in socializing because social dining is one of the most common acts when meeting with friends. People who eat socially feel better and are closer to other people (Dunbar, 2017). If students do not have enough money to go out occasionally with friends, feelings of loneliness and isolation may increase. Now more than before, it has become a larger issue since restaurants in Canada have increased prices by over 10-15 percent, making it less accessible for students to enjoy time out with friends (Restaurants Canada, 2022). Asking students to ignore this part of their life because of a lack of income can be damaging because an active social life is important for positive well-being.  

Supports Available  

Counseling Services 

Most universities offer services to help students with their mental wellness. The University of Alberta has wellness support groups, free counseling and clinical services, peer support centers, and other programs to help students better handle the struggles of school and their personal lives (Mental Health Supports for Students, n.d.). 

While many universities offer free counselling services, the Queen’s University found only 35 percent of undergraduate students solicit help from those counseling services (Linden & Stuart, 2022). Students’ mental health is declining, as 70 percent reported feeling stressed, anxious, or isolated and 80 percent of students reported being concerned about finances (Centre of Innovation in Campus Mental Health, 2021).  

Then, why is it that students do not seek help? Most undergraduates are so overwhelmed with their responsibilities they do not have time to seek proper help. Some students might not know they have free counseling resources available, so they do not utilize them. Others believe that stress is normal as a student, so they don’t need or shouldn’t need any help (Eisenberg, 2018). Some students and faculty are wondering why mental health measures are necessary, showing that people are still not aware of the issue (Mount Royal University, 2020). 

On-campus counselling centers in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions do not usually offer long-term therapy for students. If a student decides to get help beyond the initial visitation, they will be referred to an outside counseling service (Heck et. al., 2014). This becomes very challenging for the student because when trust is already built with a counselor. Having to switch therapists outside of school can be discouraging, unaffordable, and inaccessible.  

Financial Aid  

Universities offer financial aid for students, but how easy is this to obtain? Financial aid can include loans and grants, scholarships, [bursaries] and other aids (Service Canada, 2022). Loans help momentarily to get a degree and or graduate from a program, but these can have an effect after the student graduates. If the recent graduate does not get a well-paying job right after university, they can be in debt for years. A scholarship is money that does not have to be paid back. Why isn’t every student getting scholarships to pay for their education? Scholarships are based on a variety of things including GPA, athletic ability, program major, etc. (Service Canada, 2022). Scholarships, bursaries and grant applications require a lot of time to complete and there is no guarantee of being awarded. While financial aid is available, it is not accessible to all students, and it is conditional. Are universities really doing everything to help students financially?  


What can universities do to support students? Universities should have more accessible options for financial aid, options that everyone can apply for and with no strenuous process. If not, institutions and governments should implement policies to make tuition more affordable. The free counselling that schools offer often goes unnoticed and can be difficult to access, particularly for long-term needs. Counselling should be accessible long-term, as mental wellness is an ongoing process, that requires more than a momentary solution. Some universities offer more support than others, there must be more consistency so all students can have the mental health support they deserve. Students should have mental health support that is accessible, affordable, and destigmatized. Mental health and income have a strong relationship in post-secondary students; thus, institutions have a responsibility to support and develop policies and programs that alleviate financial strain.


Alejandra Hasbun (she/her), an international student from El Salvador, possesses a strong interest in the field of human behavior and mental health advocacy. In her spare time, her passion lies in travelling and exploring the world, immersing herself in new cultures, and gaining a different understanding of the world through meeting new people.  


Note: This is an excerpt from our December 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here

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