Forbearance is not as helpful as deferment. During forbearance, interest will still accrue, but there is some benefit to forbearance on student loans because collection actions such as 1040 tax retur refund intercepts, garnishments and collection calls/letters will cease during a forbearance period.
On the issue of deferments, a distinction must be made. First, you must figure out what type of loan that you have, whether it is "subsidized" or "unsubsidized".
A "subsidized" loan, such as a Direct Student Loan, the government pays the interest during any deferal period, but in an "unsubsidized" loan such as some Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), the loan always is accruing interest (thus no interest is paid by the Government on behalf of the student like in a subsidized loan during deferal) so any interest that accrues during the deferal of an unsubsidized loan is usually capitalized into the loan and added to the loan balance.
One important distinction is that even a loan in "default" may receive a forbearance, although it can take some arguing and pushing with the student loan agency to achieve the forbearance. Generally, though, once a loan is in "default" it is no longer eligible for "deferal", and "deferal" of a subsidized loan can be quite valuable. But just beause a loan is not eligible for deferal does not mean that it is likewise ineligible for forbearance.
FFEL loans have two types of forbearances, known as "mandatory" and "discretionary". The Direct Loan proram does not make this distinction.
The area of FFEL and Direct Loans forbearances is vast, and this post can only scratch the surface, however, note that both the FFEL and Direct Loan regulations provide for forbearances if borrowers are in poor health or have other ersonal problems that affect the ability o the borrower to make the scheduled payments. Forbearance for these reasons is discretionary under FFEL regulations. The forbearance is granted up to a year at a time under FFEL but there are no limits to the number of years this type o forbearance may be granted. While you are seeking one of these one-year discretionary forbearances, do not forget to ask for an "administrative" forbearance – generally with a few exceptions, the FFEL "administrative" forbearance is granted by discretion.
When seeking a forbearance, I would suggest that you do so in writing (even if the writing is to confirm an oral understanding of forbearance) by using a form available at the Department of Education’s website www.ed.gov.