Original Paper

Journal of Family and Economic Issues

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 42-57

First online:

Household Debt and Adult Depressive Symptoms in the United States

  • Lawrence M. BergerAffiliated withInstitute for Research on Poverty, School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , J. Michael CollinsAffiliated withCenter for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs and The School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Laura CuestaAffiliated withInstitute for Research on Poverty, School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison Email author 

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This study used data from Waves 1 (1987–1989) and 2 (1992–1994) of the National Survey of Families and Households in the United States and a series of regression models, some of which included individual-specific fixed effects, to estimate associations of particular types and levels of debt with adult depressive symptoms. Results suggest that household debt is positively associated with greater depressive symptoms. However, this association appears to be driven by short-term (unsecured) debt; we found little evidence of associations with depressive symptoms for mid- or long-term debt. The link between short-term debt and depressive symptoms persisted with alternative estimation strategies, including defining debt in absolute and relative terms. Furthermore, this association was particularly concentrated among 51–64 year-old adults, those with a high school education or less, and those who were not stably married throughout the observation period. These findings suggest that short-term debt may have an adverse influence on psychological wellbeing, particularly for those who are less educated, approaching retirement age, or unmarried.


Debt Depressive symptoms National Survey of Families and Households