Post-grad depression is a real thing: We asked mental health experts how to cope with it

‘Challenges graduates face can provide a hotbed for worry’

Anyone who goes to university spends three years awaiting graduation – not just the ceremony itself, but finishing uni, moving away and finally feeling like a proper grown-up. But the transition between being a student and “adult” is hard on many, with feelings of grief, sadness and uncertainty. For some graduates this post-graduate depression can become out of control, feel unbearable and overwhelming.

The Tab spoke to Floss Knight, a psychotherapist who runs UK Therapy Guide. She said: “Many graduates experience feeling low or down once they leave university.

“Some people experience this for the first time; others have a history of mental wellbeing concerns that can be exacerbated once they leave the structure of university.” Different people experience this feeling differently – some people had the time of their life at uni, whilst for others it was a source of sadness and stress.

Olivia James, a Harley Street anxiety and trauma expert, told The Tab post-graduate depression is when you feel unexpectedly low, hopeless, listless and tired when you were expecting to be happy and relieved – which is what many people anticipate the end of university will feel like.

Why do graduates get post-grad depression?

Olivia says: “Graduation is a rite of passage, there is so much emotion and meaning tied up in it: our self-esteem, our financial future, our feelings of loyalty or defiance towards family and teachers, our individuality and transitioning into adulthood.”

She says there’s a natural grieving process at the end of uni. “University was always a transitional phase between home and independence.”

Post-grad depression is not a new phenomenon. Olivia says when she graduated, she felt it was a huge anticlimax and feeling of “now what?” She says: “I’d put so much energy and effort into my course work and exams that when it was all over I felt empty and exhausted. I wasn’t as happy and elated as I was expecting.”

But at the moment graduates have to grapple with even more. Olivia says: “The pandemic has meant that students have been way more restricted and missed out on a lot of fun and personal growth. This has added to the enormity of the grief they feel.”

Both Olivia and Floss say graduates face difficulties getting jobs, moving away from their friends and the support system they found at uni, large amounts of student debt and other financial uncertainties, difficulties getting on the property ladder – and, of course, the pandemic.

“These circumstances provide a hotbed for worry,” Floss says.

However, Floss says it’s important to remember depression doesn’t need a reason to start. She says: “It is an illness that can affect anyone, regardless of these circumstantial triggers. You could have the most brilliant post-graduate experience and still feel depressed.”

What can I to do cope with post-grad depression?

Realise this feeling is normal, valid and understandable

“Realise that this is a normal and valid feeling,” Olivia says. Especially now, graduates have had their university experience disrupted by Covid, not being able to properly socialise, build friendships and relationships as well, go to in-person lectures, or celebrate graduation.

“This wasn’t what you were expecting and you are grieving for what might have been”, Olivia says, and this is very understandable.

“Do not gaslight yourself into feeling guilty about this. Allow yourself to grieve and then make a plan for what’s next.”

Don’t compare yourself to others

After uni, many graduates end up back at home, unsure of what to do next. Floss says it’s important to not compare yourself to other people, who may have got jobs or moved away – you don’t know how they got there, or how they’re feeling.

“Focus on yourself: What do you want to achieve? How do you think you could get to this next milestone? Don’t expend precious energy envying others’ achievements.”

Be kind to yourself

Floss says the feeling of depression can be debilitating, and you need to be kind to yourself about what you want to do, and how you can do it.

“Only you will know what you think can be possible. Set goals that feel achievable and take things day by day,” she says.

Remember some things are out of your control, but you can focus on things you can control. “That could be reaching out to someone to discuss how you feel, applying for jobs, or even making sure you are taking the time to look after yourself.”

Talk to someone

Floss says the most important thing to do is to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Remember this isn’t your fault, and don’t feel like you have to manage it alone. Reach out to a friend or loved one, or if you’d rather speak to a stranger contact a mental health professional or charity.

Likewise, Olivia says if you are feeling the depression is out of control and you feel unable to function, see your GP and get professional help.

How can I help a friend who’s going through post-grad depression?

“When someone is depressed or grieving do not invalidate their feelings or shame them,” Olivia says. Don’t tell them to “cheer up”, just listen.

You may be able to offer them practical help with what they’re struggling with, so you may be able to help introduce them to useful contacts, or offer to read over their CV.

It’s also important to keep an eye on them, if you feel they may be at risk of harming themselves they need professional help.

“Sometimes the best thing to do is to encourage your friend to seek expert help,” Floss says. “This is not your failing as a friend; it is the most supportive action.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58. You matter.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s about post-graduate depression, difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

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