Endings signify change, and change is what people tend to fear the most. It is a period of time whereby we have to abandon everything we know in order to replace it with what we do not. Whether this transitional period is due to timely retirement, coping with the death of a loved one or merely a case of tying the knot with a husband or wife-to-be, change is something that engulfs every aspect of our lives.
While this can be a positive thing, there are circumstances where the risks involved are a potential breeding ground for feelings of anxiety, self-loathing and disillusionment. In light of this, post-graduate depression is intrinsic to the subject at hand. This is because it not only underlines the problems involved with crossing the threshold that divides youthfulness and adulthood, but it also sheds light on the stigma associated with the change itself.
To say that I struggled after finishing university would be an understatement. Gone was the network of support that helped carried me through my years of academic study. Gone were the tutors whose knowledge helped me through every assignment, presentation and general mishap that came my way. Gone were the friends who I shared this journey with along with the sense of working in unison towards a shared purpose. In its place a dark, endless chasm of despair awaited me…
The reasons as to why I felt this way are as varied as they are complex. It began upon finding myself living back at home with my parents and being largely reliant on their financial support. This by itself can be a blow to any young adult’s sense of purpose and self-empowerment – especially after the liberation associated with further study! Moreover, I was not the same person I had been before I left university; I was a naive and anxious 18 year old when I left home for the first time and I returned a different person to the one that left all those years ago. Also like many others I faced the challenge of finding work, only to be greeted by barefaced rejection, again and again and again. In the end, whatever sense of idealism and hope for the future that I had attained beforehand was stamped into the dirt as soon as I finished my studies.
It didn’t take long before I became embittered towards the world for the circumstances that had been thrust upon me. The idea of having to wake up each day and pretend to care about life and all of its trials and tribulations both enraged and demoralised me, and nothing I did seemed to make any difference. By the time I actually found work it was already too late – nihilism had truly begun to set in and I simply had no fight left in me.
Why is Post-graduate depression an issue?
From the moment you are born until the day you graduate from university, there is always a safety net for you to fall back on. Remember ever being late to school? Perhaps you endured an hour-long detention for your transgression. Did you ever miss a lecture as a result of an unpleasant hangover? This likely wasn’t the end of your time spent in academia seeing as you could always get the notes off of a close friend or just blag your way through the next one.
‘Finishing university is supposed to be a special moment when your life can finally start. Watch out world, here you come, all bright eyed and bushy tailed – but sadly, this isn’t always the case’
Taran Bassi, Blogger
My point being, you did not need to attend these lectures or seminars. Nor did you necessarily need the knowledge that these sessions attempted to bestow upon you. Yet once you enter the ‘real’ world and it suddenly dawns on you that this unrepeatable journey is now truly and irreversibly complete, that is when everything changes.
Essentially the structure that had enabled you to make mistakes and generally enjoy a liberating amount of space for ‘finding yourself’ is swept out from underneath your feet. It is no wonder then that post-graduate depression is such a prevalent issue, and yet paradoxically it is one that still does not receive the attention it deserves.
The idea of post-graduate depression being a very real and mentally debilitating condition was bought to the public’s attention as early as 2001. Indeed, an article featured in The Guardian even acknowledged the fact that there were no official figures for the post-graduation period available for scrutiny at the time. In the same article, research suggests that many graduates take two or more years before they feel settled into ‘stable’ employment, which seems to be a tacit admission that this really is a widespread problem. Yet here we are, nearly two decades on, and this situation has not changed in the slightest – in fact, it’s likely that it has gotten even worse over the passage of time.
‘College can be similar to a Utopian society: Its inhabitants are not really aware of the struggles that may await when that Utopian world vanishes the day after graduation’
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, a writer, speaker and activist who specialises in mental and physical health
According to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), more than 18,000 graduates were unemployed six months after finishing their course and nearly 40% of graduates were still job hunting six months after graduating. This information reinforces the notion that unemployment and mental illness are intrinsically linked, and is a significant reason as to why many graduates struggle to adjust to the real world after university.
Indeed, one could argue that the working world can come across as particularly hostile to a graduate with nothing but a degree to their name. This is especially significant considering that even if they were to find an internship or work experience, the majority of these are unpaid positions. Additionally, the feeling of constant rejection that accompanies being over or under-qualified for a certain job can slowly but surely eat away at even the most optimistic person’s sense of being.
The result of all of these things tends to culminate into feelings of worthlessness and frustration at the prospect of being unable to move forward with your life. Even worse, you begin to feel like an underachiever, as despite your best efforts you seem to be constantly thwarted by circumstances beyond your control,
‘University is for yourself, for your personal development. In the corporate world, no one cares about you’
Hannah, 22, a graduate
Furthermore, the issue of post-graduate depression is far from exclusive to the jobless. The likelihood is that even if you are fortunate enough to find work soon after you finish university, the career you find yourself in will not be as sunny as you envisioned it to be. What also becomes clear is that as an individual, your ideas and creativity are unfortunately not as valued or as encouraged as they once were. Under the employment of large companies and the scrutinising gaze of superior members of staff, it is your work output that will define you more than anything else. Your thoughts and feelings about what you do for a living are irrelevant within such rigid hierarchies and it is likely that you will be a small cog in a very elaborately designed system.
All of this is a world away from university life, where your opinions are valued, your efforts are rewarded with constant appraisal and your sense of individuality is nourished by peers and lecturers alike. Instead, you must rely on yourself and your own mental resources to see through each day as best you can. You must learn to adapt to the fact that while you have the potential to flourish within these organisations and attain the respect of your employers and colleagues, this often comes at the expense of self-identity and improvement.
What Universities Can Do
It’s difficult to place a finger on exactly who or what is to blame for this particular mental health crisis, but it is also clear that the current approach of educational institutions towards preparing departing students for the outside world is inadequate to say the least.
As things currently stand, universities appear to be far more concerned with parading favourable statistics that demonstrate graduates getting their dream job work than they are with those who fall short of their expectations. Many of the students who fit into the latter category are likely sitting right in front of them. Indeed, one graduate recalls that ‘towards the end, my lectures would focus on the number of graduates who instantly came out of university with a job in their field’. She goes on to conclude that ‘the pressure to have my future planned, get experience, find a job and succeed was enormous’. This highlights just how insufficient the current system in place is and how placing high expectations on students can contribute to dark times further down the road.
‘Graduate depression is often painted as the response to the well-needed wake-up call for those pesky privileged students who realise they can no longer party all night and sleep in until midday. But this is honestly a rather patronising view of what can be a deeply painful and disorientating experience’
Morgaine Das Varma, Writer
With this in mind, it is my belief that universities have a crucial part to play in raising awareness of post-graduate depression and its devastating impact amongst young adults. While it would be absurd to suggest that these institutions should play a substantial role in the affairs of graduates after the completion of their studies, positive action can be taken both during undergraduate study and after these students have departed for pastures new:
- Have a more open dialogue about this transition period, whether this be through some kind of a transition course, offering exit interviews to discuss potential concerns or even just sending out leaflets that highlight the risk of post-graduate depression.
- Conduct studies on how graduates are faring mentally after leaving university. While the results of such a study may be difficult to obtain and scrutinise, simply acknowledging that this is an issue would be a good start!
- Place a greater emphasis on transferable skills and articulate just how students can use what they have learnt to good effect in the workplace.
- Consider implementing incentives and/or disincentives to persuade students to attend their scheduled lectures and seminars. It is all too easy for someone to fall off the radar during university life due to the double-edged sword that imposed adulthood can have on the mind. So perhaps it is time for more inflexible programs to be enforced and attendance to be made mandatory to a certain degree, which also can prepare young adults for the way in which the ‘real world’ operates!
What You Can Do
Post-university, there is a very real danger of experiencing post-graduate depression, and it is likely that even if you have not endured this yourself, you know somebody who has. Once you realise that the world as you once knew it has been jettisoned irretrievably into the past and that you face an uncertain and perilous future, it may well be that you’ll experience mental health problems without even realising it!
Like every other issue that revolves around mental health, there is no such thing as an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. Everybody’s situation after university is different and thus your own individual circumstances need to be taken into account before making any hasty decisions. There are some things to keep in mind however:
- You are not a failure. Be more forgiving of yourself when these moments of self doubt come. On a more practical level you can avoid negative thoughts by setting goals, starting new hobbies or simply going out and meeting new people!
- Try to keep in touch with your university friends. They are going to have an idea of what you’re going through and may even have some suggestions as to how to cope with what you’re feeling.
- Try to have some idea of where you’re going. It can avoid that sense of aimlessness and the possible feelings of negativity that can follow.
- Take advantage of the career services that universities offer. Even if you do not have a history of mental illness, the advent of increasing competition for work, spiralling debts and the loss of structure that has supported you for all your life up until this point can have a negative impact on your psyche!
‘If college is all about finding yourself, then everything that follows is about moulding yourself and creating a fulfilling life’
Wes Fehr, Writer for Elite Daily
Higher education should be something that engenders an endless curiosity about the strange and intricately crafted world that surrounds us, and yet the sad reality of the matter is that it often merely postpones reality – with catastrophic results. It also does not help that there are many misconceptions and hackneyed stereotypes perpetuated about this final step into adulthood and the problems it leaves in its wake.
Yet as much as it may feel like you have hit the pinnacle of your life’s enjoyment right now, there is a life beyond university, and it is one that can be a fulfilling experience if you are willing to put the work in. Societal restructuring takes time, but you do not have the time to waste meandering aimlessly about waiting for this change to happen.
‘There’s a common misconception that university is just a three-year party with a never ending alcohol supply – in fact, the party does end, and there is not enough being done to help with the clearing up after’
Rebecca Miller, Freelance Multimedia Journalist
At present we would rather discuss the prospect of accomplishing our goals and ignore the long, mentally challenging journey that goes hand in hand with working towards them. In this sense, the curtain that obscures just how serious an issue post-graduate depression is has yet to be lifted, and the longer it takes the more embedded this problem will become.
So let us take things another step further to eradicating the stigma that surrounds mental health and the emotional devastation that it leaves in its wake. Let’s talk about graduate depression, and let’s talk about it now.
Did you know?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 75 percent of mental-health conditions begin by age 24, which means that both the college years and the abrupt transition when it’s over can be a particularly challenging time for maintaining a healthy state of mind!
Relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil explains ‘change’ as ‘a modification to a person’s environment, situation, or physical/mental condition that results in circumstances that challenge their existing paradigms’.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) stresses that feeling restricted because you are now dependant on your parents with no real structure, and panicking about your future are extremely common ; but that “doesn’t mean you have to put up with them”.
According to John Galvin, psychology researcher at Cardiff University, graduates tend to be very hard to track down within the first year or so of finishing university. This might explain the extensive amount of data collected regarding mental health issues in students seeing as they are all conglomerated in one place, as opposed to being dispersed about throughout an entire country!
What’s your take on this issue? Should there be more support in place for the transition from university to working life? Or should greater emphasis be placed on the individual and strengthening their ability to react in a proactive and positive manner to change? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate).
Sane Line: 0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here.