Nobody Told You About Post-College Depression

The days before you graduate college, all the congratulations that roll in and the excitement over buying a cap and gown make you feel as though you can conquer the world as soon as you walk across that stage. Most students are still on a high a couple of weeks after graduation as friends and family sing praise of their accomplishments and the bright future ahead of them. For some, a life without school is an exhilarating and welcome change. However, that’s not the case for everybody. When school is all you’ve ever known, the sudden transition into a life without the structure of classes can be scary. Your sense of purpose can be shattered when your days aren’t planned out for you like they used to be. Graduation is exciting and worthy of all those celebratory social media posts, but something nobody seems to talk about is post-college depression.

Tanairy Fernandez, LMHC, founder of Balance Mental Health Counseling, explains that “adjusting to any major life change can cause anxiety, stress, and fear. […] When a student is graduating from college, they have been in an educational environment for about 16 years or so. In these environments, they are provided with a structured schedule, events to attend, socialization opportunities, and staff/faculty support.”

Being cut off from this type of environment so abruptly is not easy to handle. Before graduation, even if you hated your 8 a.m. psychology class, at least you knew that was where you would be every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. “The most fearful reality for graduates is that their life is no longer predictable,” says Fernandez. “Many students don’t know what will happen after graduation.” 

It’s not uncommon for recent college grads to experience depression, but according to The Debrief, there has never been a professional study done on post-college depression. Many graduating college students have grand ideas about kick-starting their career and happily living on their own once they graduate, but not living up to these expectations right away can be discouraging. The real world can be disillusioning, especially when your friends and family are now asking what your next step is in life and you have no idea. “For the first time in their [lives], graduates are more independent than ever before, and this can cause many different emotions and thoughts,” says Fernandez. “Some examples that can cause a recent graduate stress [are] paying off student loans, finding a job within their field of study, decrease in peer, staff, and faculty support, being independent, [and] finding their own opportunity for engagement in community and social events.”

All of this comes with a lot of pressure, and the added influence of social media can be another source of discouragement. On social media platforms, we tend to display our successes while keeping quiet about our difficulties. If someone is open about their struggles, it’s usually only after they’ve experienced a breakthrough. No one likes to publicize their hardships, which can make us feel as though we’re the only ones dealing with obstacles. 

Sometimes recent grads don’t realize that they are experiencing depression because they are not aware of or are misinformed about the symptoms. While the symptoms aren’t the same for everyone, there are some particular indicators of depression, as Fernandez explains: “Experiencing any of the following symptoms nearly everyday for two weeks or more can be a sign one is suffering from depression: feeling sad, empty, or hopeless, frequent tearfulness, decrease in enjoying personal interest[s], significant weight gain or weight loss, insomnia or hypersomnia nearly everyday, loss of energy, decrease in concentration or lack of motivation, or recurrent suicidal ideations without a specific plan.”

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness can also be a reason why some people don’t seek treatment. But with nearly 43.8 million adults in the U.S. experiencing some form of mental illness, the shame associated with asking for help should be dismantled. “First, I would recommend [scheduling] an appointment with a mental health professional to process any sadness, stress or anxiety one may be feeling due to all these changes,” says Fernandez. “One can adjust to life after college by staying connected with the college community by attending alumni events, using the career center as a resource, and staying organized with a planner. In reference to the depression, I would recommend doing something that can increase one's motivation and energy to do more, such as yoga, meditation, running, setting realistic short-term goals, reading positive affirmations, doing a gratitude journal in the morning, talking to a close friend, and/or using socratic questioning to challenging negative thinking.” 

This article is not intended to replace professional healthcare treatment or provide anyone with a diagnosis. If you or a loved one is struggling, please reach out to a healthcare provider that can best help you.

Feature photo by Anna Lanier via StockSnap.io