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Post-College Depression

Why it's so common and how to cope.

College commencement—“the first day of the rest of your life.”

After four long years, countless cram sessions, and too many all-nighters, you’ve finally made it. There’s nothing quite like that moment when you throw your cap in the air.

But this year, some students won’t get that chance. Several universities, including Columbia and the University of Southern California, have cancelled commencement ceremonies due to safety concerns related to demonstrations on campus. While most schools will move ahead with in-person ceremonies, many graduates’ excitement and achievement are dimmed by the conflicts at home and in the world.

Ironically, this group of seniors started their college experience in fall of 2020, in the midst of another significant disruption: 46% of college students took all their courses online that fall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and another quarter were partially remote.

For the class of 2024, the strange start of their college career, coupled with its tumultuous and anti-climactic end, may increase their likelihood of experiencing what’s known as post-college depression. While it’s not an official mental health diagnosis, post-college depression is a common phenomenon triggered by the stress of change and the challenges of adulting in an uncertain world.

Causes of Post-College Depression 

Why do recent graduates experience post-college depression? For one, uncertainty and change fuel fears after graduating college, making it a uniquely stressful period of life. Moreover, for most people, college graduation coincides with the key developmental transition from adolescence to adulthood. And transitions are naturally difficult. (Remember that awkward transition from tween to teen?) Periods of intense identity development are associated with a higher risk of mental health issues. And for this year’s graduates, not being able to mark that milestone in a satisfactory way can increase negative or confused feelings around the change.

College graduates are also on the cusp of what’s known as the "quarter-life crisis," during which they’ll grapple with life’s biggest questions: Who am I? What makes me happy? What do I want to do with my life? The achievement of graduating can feel like a letdown if reality does not deliver what they thought they were aiming for, whether that was a dream job, graduate school admission, or independence from family. 

In addition to their personal reckonings, the current generation of young adults faces economic, societal, and environmental factors that leave them feeling helpless and hopeless. It’s hard to be starting out when it feels like the world is ending. That trepidation can lead to "summer scaries" in the summer after graduation.

"For many of you who maybe don't have it all figured out, it's okay. That's the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result."
- Will Ferrell, University of Southern California commencement, 2018

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Depression After College?

On an individual level, a person’s vulnerability to depression is influenced by a complex interplay of factors. Genetics, personality, and early life experience all contribute to how we respond to stressful events later in life. Current circumstances, including financial security (or lack of it) and how accepted a person feels by family and society, are also important. Low-income students, students of color, female students, LGBTQ students, and students who are caregivers for children or other adults are at greatest risk for post-graduation depression.

Moreover, depression is a highly recurrent disorder - more than 40% of people who have had a depressive episode will experience a second one at some point. Hence, as rates of depression among college students have been rising in recent years, the odds of depression after college have also increased.

Symptoms of Post-College Depression

The symptoms of depression after college are similar to those of major depressive disorder. However, some of the symptoms may be more pronounced, including:

  • Severe sadness

  • Loss of motivation

  • Sleep disturbances (either too much or too little)

  • Feelings of disconnection from friends and family

  • Sense of helplessness

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

  • Aches, pains, or digestive problems that have no obvious cause

It is not uncommon for post-college depression to manifest as hidden depression. A recent grad might appear to be succeeding and thriving, while struggling inside. Hidden depression can be even more dangerous than other forms, since the person is less likely to get the help they need. In addition, post-college depression can occur in tandem with high-functioning anxiety, which is also common in young adults.

How Change Contributes to the Post-College Blues

Even students who sailed through their studies can find themselves feeling lost after college. In fact, sometimes the best students are the ones who find themselves floundering. That’s because academic life presents a clear path of required courses, a clear set of assignments that need to be completed, and clear feedback on whether you’ve succeeded or not. Good students are used to knowing what they need to do and how to do it. The world of work often lacks that clarity. A recent grad may find themselves questioning their choices, competence, and very identity.

Moreover, campus life offers myriad social groups, clubs, and activities that reinforce a young adult’s sense of identity and belonging. Many workplaces, in contrast, thrust a young adult into a new environment with diverse coworkers at all phases of life. New grads have gone from the top of the food chain to the bottom of the ladder, and they may be wondering if they even belong there.

These threats to the basic human needs of identity, purpose, and belonging are often accompanied by a destabilizing change in lifestyle. Recent grads commonly lose the structure and resources that supported their mental health in college, like a consistent class schedule and deadlines, friend groups, and athletics. 

"You don’t have to know what your ‘passion’ might be. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life."
- Shonda Rimes, Dartmouth College commencement, 2014

Stressors That Can Trigger Depression After College

  • Moving to a new city. A young adult may find themselves alone in a new, unfamiliar location. That means finding a new group of friends, new places to shop, and new ways to relax and rejuvenate. 

  • Going back home. If a grad has moved back home, as many did during the pandemic, negotiating a new relationship with parents and siblings may come with some bumps. Old friend groups may have scattered or might not feel right anymore.

  • Financial pressures. Two-thirds of Gen Z respondents to a 2021 Deloitte survey say they often worry or become stressed by their financial situations. And many students leave school with a mountain of student loan debt that can constrain their choices. They may feel forced to take a job that doesn’t interest them, further undermining their sense of purpose and identity.

  • Struggling with life skills. Tasks like cooking, budgeting, and car maintenance may be new responsibilities for a recent grad. Even a small failure like burning pancakes can feel defeating to someone grappling with big existential questions.

"If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it you haven’t failed."
Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University commencement, 2011

How to Deal with Post-College Depression

A young adult can begin to fortify themselves against a case of postgrad depression even before they leave campus. And while many aspects of life after college are out of their control, there are lots of things they can do to build their resilience and weather experiences, both good and bad, while bolstering their mental health.

Get Ready for Life After College

  • Proactively guard against isolation. Form a support group with a group of friends. Meet a few times face to face to share hopes and fears about life after graduation. Make a plan for how to keep the connection going after graduation.

  • Explore your institution’s support for alumni. Many colleges and universities offer lifetime career services for their alumni. Find out what they offer now in case you want to revisit your options later.

  • Connect with alumni in your new location. Even if there is not a formal alumni association in your region, individuals are often happy to connect with a recent graduate from their alma mater, for social or professional purposes.

Set Yourself Up with Healthy Habits

  • Prioritize the three pillars of mental health. Good nutrition, exercise, and regular sleep are not just “nice to have”—all three directly impact the neurochemicals that regulate mental health. 

  • Use social media sparingly. Social media can be a great way to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. But because most people only post the positive aspects of their lives, it’s easy to fall into a trap of “upward comparison” that is damaging for self-esteem. Find a few outlets for IRL connection as a counterbalance—a hiking club or yoga class, or even a community ed class.

  • Experiment with financial mindfulness. Mindfulness is a good habit for emotional resilience in general, and it can be very useful when applied to your financial behaviors in particular. Consider how your financial behavior reflects your underlying needs and values. How could you meet those needs without jeopardizing your financial health?

Go into Your New Life with Healthy Coping Skills 

  • Reframe change. Make the novelty feel playful. For example, get to know your new city by challenging local friends or acquaintances with tasks like “find the best burger” or “find the best place to swim” in your new location. If you’re back in your hometown, this kind of scavenger hunt can help you see a familiar location with fresh eyes.

  • Make a difference in small ways. If your sense of purpose and direction is taking a hit, look for small, meaningful ways to make an impact. That might look like taking a shift with a volunteer organization or helping a neighbor in need.

  • Practice self-compassion and self-care. Recognize that this transition is a difficult one and honor your feelings. A commitment to self-compassion will allow you to stay relaxed enough to learn from any mistakes you might make, rather than sinking under the discomfort.

Article Courtesy of Newport Institute

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