Work, Life

What I didn’t know about life after graduation

Post-graduation depression is a real thing, and it's completely normal.

It has been a year since I graduated from university. I remember how anxious I was to be finished, how ready I was to walk across that stage and hold my diploma.

It took me three changes in my major and almost six years to complete a four-year degree, so I was burnt out, to say the least.  I thought that life after graduation would mean freedom from stress and anxiety.

Graduation came and went, and life brought new anxiety for which I was not prepared.

No one told me about the loneliness I would feel when I stopped seeing my friends every day or when we all inevitably took different paths. I didn’t know that I would feel such a lack of purpose without my constant deadlines or my identity as a student. 

In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life at all. 

All of these factors caused me to spiral into a depression that lasted for months. It felt isolating to see so many people thriving in dream careers and relationships after graduation, and I couldn’t even find the motivation to get out of bed. 

In fact, I found that those who seemed to be thriving immediately after graduating were in the minority. 

“If a student’s college experience is mostly positive, college provides a cocoon of sorts: a community of friends, teachers, and mentors who are most readily available to offer support or advice..” said Juli Fraga, a psychologist based in San Francisco. “Post-grad depression is under­reported because graduation is like motherhood: culturally seen as a seemingly joyful time, which makes it even more shameful for someone to admit that it’s not,” says Fraga.

While studies about ­post-graduation depression are difficult to find, researchers tend to look at a variety of causes of depression in the 18-25 age group. However, it takes just one Internet search to find countless personal accounts of the heavy sadness that takes over just weeks after receiving that diploma.

Recent research suggests that millennials have the highest rates of depression and anxiety of any generation. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 75 percent of mental health conditions begin by age 24, which means that both the university years and the sudden transition, once they’re over, can be an especially challenging time emotionally.

I’ve had issues with depression since my teenage years, so I know that I’m already vulnerable to feelings of sadness in seasons of transition. The biggest contributing factor to my depression was having to adjust to a life that no longer aligned with my passions. At university, I had the freedom to shape my life based on my interests.

It wasn’t long after graduation before I realized that the real world doesn’t work like that. I found myself taking any jobs that would pay my rent and provide me with decent health insurance.

Beyond the disappointment in my professional life, I was lonely. Ironically, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

“University naturally facilitates community,” says Alex Church, a recent university graduate. “You have classes with people of similar interests, you live with a roommate or you constantly see your neighbors, and there are always events within walking distance if you still find yourself wanting community. Community outside of university doesn’t come naturally. Friendships require work and intentionality, and we’re not necessarily used to that because we’ve had them handed to us throughout our years in school.”

“At university, all of my friends lived either next door or down the hall,” says Rachel Smith, a recent university graduate. “Once we graduated, some of us moved away, some of us got engaged and married, all of us had full-time jobs. I tried to stay in touch with them, but sometimes weeks would go by with minimal contact. It was a challenge, and many of my friendships didn’t survive.”

And friendships aren’t the only relationships that change after graduation. Many graduates find themselves having to readjust to moving back in with their parents after leaving university, which can present a huge challenge after living independently for four or so years.

“By the time I graduated, my parents were used to not having me around the house, and I often felt forgotten,” says Megan Richards, a recent university graduate. “I was a 22-year-old woman, but living at home again made me feel like a child. Moving back in with my parents as an early adult lead to many conflicts about rights, responsibilities, and behavior in general.”

So, with these obstacles and more waiting for new graduates, how are we supposed to cope with and overcome the depression that follows leaving university?

Many graduates choose to see a therapist, and that is something I also chose after graduating. “Having someone with an objective view and the skills to help us navigate through life’s tough emotions has really made all the difference,” says Jordan Miller, a recent university graduate. “My therapist constantly challenges my fear of failure and inadequacy, which are things that I never really addressed throughout my years in school, and it has been incredibly healing.”

“Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is also essential in building community and discovering your passions outside of the university,” says Church. “This was and is usually uncomfortable since we become comfortable inside the bubble of our school over the years, but I’m finding that the challenge is worth the self-discovery.”

To those experiencing the post-grad depression, I see you.

While I’m far better than I once was, I’m still figuring out how to transition into this weird adulthood after university. It’s normal for us to grieve that season of our lives – our years in school are transformative, to say the least. You will struggle to find your footing, you will feel inadequate, and at times you will be lonely.

But as time goes on, you will find your community, you will do what you love, and you will realize you are so much more than a university student.