Just Graduated? Ways To Combat Post-College Depression

By: Margaret Wack

Updated February 16, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Many people think of college graduation as a time of accomplishment, happiness, and excitement for the future. Graduating college is a big accomplishment, and marks an important milestone in many people's lives. But graduation can also be a time of stressful transitions and changes, whether that means moving across the country for a job opportunity, living on your own for the first time, or not seeing close friends as often. For young adults, the years immediately after college can often be the first time they have to deal with adult challenges and stressors like working full-time, paying rent and bills, and saving up for significant expenses. Compounding these stressors, today's college grads often face an uncertain economy and wages that haven't kept up with the cost of living.

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With all of this on the plate of recently graduated students, it's no surprise that many young adults experience post graduation depression. Stressful transitions can exacerbate existing mental illness or even cause new ones to form. Even when they're looking forward to professional life, recent grads often struggle to match expectations with reality, and can often face personal and professional setbacks that can have a profound impact on their mental health.

Reasons For Post-College Depression

While reasons for post graduation depression are unique to each, there are a few common causes for feeling the blues once you've left college years and entered the real world.

  1. Trouble Finding A Job

One of the most common struggles for recent graduates is to find a promising job in their field of choice. While some are lucky enough to land a dream job right away, many young adults are under- or unemployed. Without a steady salary to fall back on, recent grads also have to worry about money for rent and bills and may have to move back in with their parents for financial reasons. Student loans and other financial challenges just make job-hunting that much more stressful.

2. Trouble Adjusting To Working Life

Even for those students who can snag a good job in their field, it can be a tough transition to full-time work and a new environment. Most recent grads are entering the world of 9-5 jobs for the first time, and it can be challenging and overwhelming to have work take up so much of your time when you're not used to it. Moving from a self-directed schedule consisting of classes, homework, and studying to a rigid schedule and office environment can be a difficult transition, especially for those who value flexibility and freedom.

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  1. Adult Responsibilities

For some students, post-grad life is the first time they'll have to deal with a wide variety of adult responsibilities, from cooking dinner each night to paying bills on time. But even if you've been fending yourself for a while, post-grad life can be overwhelming without the safety net of school, parents, or friends to fall back on. "Adulting" can be challenging during the best of times, and is often exacerbated by the other stressful aspects of post-college life.

4. Financial Precarity

With wages that haven't kept up with the cost of living, student debt at an all-time high, and prospects for home-ownership and retirement savings looking grim, one of the most significant factors in post graduation depression is financial precarity. Millennials and Generation Z face an uncertain economic climate, one in which they can expect to earn less than their parents did and arrive at milestones like marriage and children much later in life. Financial precarity is a significant predictor of depression in any age group but is especially challenging when you're just starting.

Individuals may turn to drug or alcohol use to try to self-medicate overwhelming symptoms of depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is common for substance use disorders to co-occur with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. However, substance abuse can lead to exacerbated symptoms of mental illness, leading to a vicious cycle. Dual diagnosis treatment is targeted to address both substance use disorders and mental illness.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers a National Helpline (or Treatment Referral Routing Service) which is a free 24 hour a day, 365 day a year information service in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing mental and or substance use disorders. Call the Helpline at 1-800-487-4889 to receive referrals to treatment facilities, community organizations and health information (available in both English and Spanish).

Symptoms Of Post-College Depression

While some of the symptoms of depression can overlap with normal feelings of sadness and anxiety in response to significant life changes, these symptoms tend to be more severe and last for a much longer period. Depression is a serious mental illness that requires professional treatment. Symptoms of depression can be debilitating and can have a significant negative effect on work, personal relationships, and life. But even if your symptoms are relatively mild, you could still be experiencing a less severe form of depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists common symptoms of depression as:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessive guilt
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Reckless behavior
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Anger and irritability
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Persistent sadness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is confidential and does not share personal information.

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Other symptoms specific to the post graduation depression can include a feeling of helplessness, a lack of direction, fear for the future, and loneliness and isolation. After college, many young adults suddenly find themselves without the consistent support system that surrounded them only a few short months ago. It can be challenging to build up new coping mechanisms, seek out new resources, and establish a strong support system on top of all the other difficulties of post-grad life.

If you find yourself experiencing persistent, intense symptoms over a significant period, you could be experiencing depression. Even when mental health issues have external causes, they can still have a significant effect on your life and should be taken seriously. While post graduation depression might not always need medical treatment, it's always a good idea to check in with a health care professional to receive health information and see what they recommend.

Individuals may turn to drug or alcohol use to try to self-medicate overwhelming symptoms of depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is common for substance use disorders to co-occur with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. However, substance abuse can lead to exacerbated symptoms of mental illness, leading to a vicious cycle. Dual diagnosis treatment is targeted to address both substance use disorders and the diagnosed mental illness.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers a National Helpline (or Treatment Referral Routing Service) which is a free 24 hour a day, 365 day a year information service in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing mental and or substance use disorders. Call 1-800-487-4889 to receive referrals to treatment facilities, community organizations and health information.

How To Combat Post Graduation Depression

If you're struggling with post graduation depression, there are a wide variety of strategies you can implement to fight off the blues, from implementing lifestyle changes to seeking professional help from a health care or mental health professional.

1. Reach Out To Friends And Family

While it can feel like all of your support system may have fallen away after graduation, most people are more than happy to help you through a difficult time. It can be a lengthy process to develop a new support system. Try reaching out to friends who are going through similar experiences, whether you can meet up in person or online. Not only will this make you feel less alone, but you'll also make sure your friends know that you're there for them in return. If you have family members that you're close to, consider talking with them about what you're going through. Most people are more than happy to help.

Faith based organizations can play an important role in one’s support system. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) note the positive impact of spirituality and faith based community on an individual’s mental health and well-being. NAMI suggests seeking out a faith based community that makes you feel welcome and encourages you to participate in actions at home that may serve as a coping skill for symptoms of mental illness. Visit NAMI FaithNet for more information and resources on faith based communities as a central part of recovery from mental illness.

2. Stay Active

When you're overwhelmed and anxious, exercise is usually pretty far down on the list of priorities. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America discusses the significant impact of physical activity on managing mental illness. Try incorporating exercise into your daily routine, even if it's just a walk around the block. If you exercised regularly in college, whether as part of an organized sport or through classes at the gym, look into similar offerings in your area. If you can find a physical activity that you enjoy and stick to it, you'll reap both physical and mental benefits.

3. Eat Well

Post graduation depression has the potential to mess with your appetite, it's easy to fall into unhealthy eating patterns. Especially if you've been relying on dining hall food for the past few years, it can be especially challenging to cook for yourself daily. But nourishing, nutritious meals can give you a boost in all aspects of your health. Cooking can also be a great way to test out new skills, try new recipes, and learn new things. If you've been craving the intellectual stimulation of a school environment, consider taking a cooking class, or even just teaching yourself new techniques in the kitchen at home.

4. Reflect On Your Goals And Aspirations

Post graduation depression can leave you feeling adrift and at a loss. While the future might still be uncertain, graduation is an accomplishment that you can be proud of. And while it inevitably brings many changes, both welcome and unwelcome, this new stage of your life can be a great opportunity to reflect on everything you've achieved, as well as to set new goals for the future. Think about what you've loved about your college experiences, and try to find ways to capture aspects of them going forward.

5. Treat Yourself

While it won't solve all your problems, treating yourself to a favorite meal, an item on your bucket list, or even just a night in to relax and unwind can be a great way to give your mental health a little boost. In this time of transition and change, it's important to focus on your happiness and well being, in both the big picture and the little everyday aspects of your life.

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Whether you book yourself a tropical vacation or buy a pint of your favorite ice cream, self-care is an important part of mental health. Beyond focusing on the simple pleasures, also remember to take care of yourself on a deeper level. Try to get enough sleep, spend time with people who care about you, and use your off hours to have fun and do things that you truly enjoy.

6. Seek Professional Help

If you're having trouble getting to a good mental space after graduation, health care and mental health professionals can help get you on the right track. It's important to be proactive and seek out mental health services if you're living with post graduation depression.

Individuals may turn to drug or alcohol use to try to self-medicate overwhelming symptoms of depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is common for substance use disorders to co-occur with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. However, substance abuse can lead to exacerbated symptoms of mental illness, leading to a vicious cycle. Dual diagnosis treatment is targeted to address both substance use disorders and the diagnosed mental illness.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers a National Helpline (or Treatment Referral Routing Service) which is a free 24 hour a day, 365 day a year information service in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing mental and or substance use disorders. Call 1-800-487-4889 to receive referrals to treatment facilities, community organizations and health information.

Whether you're looking for professional counseling or just need someone to talk to, BetterHelp offers a diverse selection of online therapy services that can provide you the help you need to manage your mental health. BetterHelp counselors are trained to help individuals facing mental illness, substance use disorders or difficult life stressors. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.


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