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What is Post-Graduation Depression and How to Overcome it

A student wearing a cap and gown walking away from the camera

Post-Graduation Depression is not a term that could be found in the American Psychiatric Association's dictionary, but research shows how real it is and the impact it has on recent grads. Depression in young adults often occurs right after they complete university coursework, often due to pressure to get a job right away or sadness leaving their college peers and life behind, according to a medical journal Addictive Behaviors Reports.

In addition, by the time a student graduates from college, they have spent the majority of their lives as students. Dr. Matt Glowiak, clinical mental health counseling faculty at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), said that higher education students have attended school for close to 20 years and it has become a major part of their identity.

"When people face an obstacle that threatens their identity, mental health may become compromised," said Glowiak. He said questions such as, "Who am I?" "What will I do next?" "Will I be successful at seeking, attaining, and maintaining employment in my field?" and others may arise among recent graduates.

Factors That Could Lead to Post-Graduation Depression

Some of the factors that could lead to post-graduation depression, according to Dr. Lotes Nelson, clinical mental health counseling faculty at SNHU, include: 

  • Transition involving changes in students' daily living arrangements, routines, and overall shift of mindset from student to working adults.
  • Ease of connecting with friends and peers on campus and difficulties to do so after graduating. 
  • Difficulties in acclimating to life in the mainstream.

Quite often, post-graduation depression is accompanied by a quarter-life crisis - a feeling that makes “twenty-somethings” doubt their life values and purpose. According to psychologists Joan Atwood and Corine Scholtz, a quarter-life crisis is, in many instances, supplemented with an emotional crisis—"the sense of desolation, isolation, inadequacy and self-doubt, coupled with a fear of failure."

Andrea Bard, associate professor of communication at SNHU and student advisor, said she often likes to compare the terrible 2s to the terrible 20s.

"When babies turn 2-years-old, they can be really difficult because they are figuring out how to be independent from their parents. When students are in their 20s they are kind of doing the same thing only bigger," she said, "they are trying to figure out how to be independent in the whole big world."

What are the Symptoms of Depression?

Post-graduation depression symptoms, according to Nelson, can include:

  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Decreased motivation
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable things
  • A sense of disorganization
  • General sense of hopelessness

In addition, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a licensed professional counselor, told the Washington Post that depressed new graduates often lack the motivation to get a job, as well as feeling lonely due to a lack of connection with friends. Ziegler also said that emerging adults might cope with depression with excessive alcohol consumption and recreational drug use since the college environment could have been more accepting of alcohol than life outside of college.

How to Prevent Post-Graduation Depression

For students approaching the end of their academic journey, there are ways to prevent post-graduation depression. Nelson suggested students and their mentors plan next steps before graduation.

Since campus-based college students are accustomed to easy access to basic needs, such as shelter, food, social events and activities, Nelson said planning is crucial to make a smooth transition to a new environment.

Some key factors to take into consideration in preventing post-graduation depression, according to Nelson, include:

  • Plan for housing accommodations. Students should particularly consider resources wherever they land after graduation, whether returning home or to a new location.
  • Develop a plan to create a support/network system to use as a resource. This involves thinking through who is around. Do students have friends when they return home or to a new place of residence? What will they need to do to build their social network?
  • Plan ahead to manage the stressors that may come along after graduation. This may consist of engaging in daily exercise, meditation routine or creating a stress management plan.
  • Explore career opportunities or additional schooling. If students choose to enter the workforce right after graduation, they should begin to prepare securing employment. Perhaps, connecting with a career counselor, employment agency or a recruiter to assist with the job search process would be beneficial. 

Nelson, who is a National Certified Counselor, also recommended that students consult with clinical mental health counselors to work through the emotional changes they might be experiencing and to assist them with the transitional process. These professionals have the necessary expertise and credentials needed to address students’ concerns.

Creating a daily schedule and having an action plan may help the individual in reaching their personal and professional goals. Nelson stated that as a part of establishing students' goal/s, it is crucial to ensure that they develop SMART goals.

Having a daily schedule may have beneficial impacts on many aspects of recent graduates' lives, including mental health. According to a nationally ranked academic medical center Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH), some benefits of a daily routine include:

Better stress levels and improved mental health as a result of extra time to relax and less anxiety over making decisions on the go.

Better sleep habits and increased mental sharpness if the bedtime routine is also included in the schedule.

Better overall health due to extra planning. The more chores and activities are included in a schedule, the more organized one can become when it comes to developing healthy habits, such as eating breakfast on time or exercising. 

Where Should Students Seek Help?

National Alliance on Mental Health reports that 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. This age group fits into both categories of last college years and the post-college transition. Many schools today offer counseling services and academic advising available to students.

This means that students who feel depressed might look for help right on campus. Further, counseling professionals might recommend additional services to students to better fit their needs.

Glowiak also recommended reaching out directly to mentors.

“For me, it always helped to speak directly with my professors I regarded as mentors,” he said. “Each of these individuals faced similar situations prior to and upon graduation, and their experience may serve as guidance.”

These mentors might know students on a personal level, including their strengths and weaknesses and have knowledge of how to guide these individuals into the “real” world.

If a student does not feel comfortable seeking help within their academic institution, there are other services available, according to Nelson. Some national resources that are also available:

It is crucial for students to remember and be reminded by mentors and professors that their depression does not define them in any way and it is possible to overcome it.

"It certainly helps to speak to someone. This helps students recognize that they are not alone in their feelings," said Glowiak.

He said recognizing that these feelings are relatively common for many students approaching graduation allows one to see that such depression is not necessarily pathological but a normal part of the human experience.

Aytaj Ismayilova is a content marketing assistant and communication student at SNHU. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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