Why Is No-One Talking About Depression Amongst Graduates?
The Debrief: You're meant to be having the time of your life with your newfound freedom. But why is graduate depression a thing?
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
Graduating was the single biggest shock to my system I have ever experienced: I went from drinking three nights a week, living in a messy pit with my best friends and staying at my boyfriend's whenever I wanted, to living with my parents and teenage sister, boyfriendless and unemployed, without a penny to my name.
Do you know that there hasn't been a single study on graduate depression? Not one. We know that one in four undergraduate students suffer from depression or anxiety at some point in their university career and, from personal experience, I feel like the first year after graduating is considerably more stressful than the security and routine of the education system. So why is everyone ignoring depression and anxiety in graduates?
'It's the move to being an adult. You grow up at university and feel empowered in that arena to becoming disempowered in the unfamiliar adult world. You have to find a new identity as a young adult', says Fiona Starr, young person's clinical psychologist. Fiona also says another issue graduates face is the fear of the uncertainty of real life. After being enclosed in the comfort blanket of the education system, you're suddenly catapulted into the empty void of real life and unemployment. Separation anxiety is also a very real issue.
'I can honestly say it was one of the most daunting experiences because you leave your friends and you're back to square one trying to make a plan for your life, just winging it and hoping for the best. It's tricky because you're used to independence but suddenly you become very dependent on your parents again,' says Isobel Matthews, history graduate.
Graduate mental health is a real issue. I don't know a single person who graduated from university, landed their dream job and was having the time of their life within a matter of weeks. But it's a topic that is very rarely discussed in the media and, like I mentioned earlier, there hasn't been a single professional study on the matter. John Galvin, psychology researcher at Cardiff University thinks this is because the first year is a transitional period and graduates are very hard to track down: 'Research is much easier with students as they are all in one place so data can be collected easily. Some graduates go home, some go into work or postgraduate study so it's much harder to collect information.'
Last year, data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed that more than 18,000 graduates were unemployed six months after finishing their course and according to a February 2014 survey conducted by the graduate recruitment website Totaljobs.com, nearly 40% of graduates were still job hunting six months after graduating. Couple that with the average student's debt hovering around the £25,000 mark and the cost of living in London being the 4th highest in the world - let alone the highest in the UK and it's no wonder that the newly-graduated 20-somethings are feeling the pressure.
But it's not just unemployed graduates who have to move back home who suffer from mental health issues. Even if a graduate does manage to find a job, it doesn't mean they won't have struggles of their own. John says our old friend Imposter Syndrome can rear its ugly head, especially amongst women: 'It's the feeling of being a fraud, you've managed to blag your dream job and you become stressed because you feel like you're going to get found out. Normally intelligent and successful people can get this. You feel like you've gone too far and now you're going to get found out.'
It took me five months to get a job. I am from Somerset, AKA the back end of nowhere, where there are very few graduate jobs, so I was very lucky to get the one I did, even if it was in dentistry sales (as a humanities grad there's no telling what industry you could end up in to begin with). As much of a shock it was to me, my parents and teenage sister found it equally as difficult. I was a completely different person from the one who left three years before and it took a lot for them to adjust. It took at least three months before they were comfortably having me around all the time, and about the same for me to make new friends. A lot of my school and college friends had left, so I had to make an entire set of new friends. It's not the same as university where everyone wants to meet people, it took a while before people from work started inviting me to socialise with them.
As it happens, it worked out fine for me in the end: I lived at home so had quite a bit of cash, which I spent on three holidays, two festivals and mountains of clothes. I eventually worked out what I wanted to do, so returned to university to study magazine journalism. Now I'm graduating all over again, but it doesn't seem so bad, mainly because I know I want to be a journalist. But what if you're not so lucky?
And even if it is a notoriously difficult career to go into, having a plan and something to aim for gives life a sense of purpose. John thinks that this is particularly important: 'One of the main things you can do to alleviate stress is to plan for the future before graduation or immediately afterwards. Think about what you want to do, go for it and don't feel too pressured to dive straight into a job. You can change your career if you want to.'
This is exactly what Isobel has now done, after working for three years as a Business Development Assistant she has decided to go back to uni and study to become a history teacher: 'After working for a few years, I decided that business was just not what I wanted to do. I studied history at uni and being a teacher has always been at the back of my mind, so I decided to just go for it.'
Leaving university is hard, really hard. But it does get better. Fiona advises that the best way to deal with the uncertainty is to get some perspective on life as you won't know what you want to do in a year. She says, 'do something rather than nothing. Try to get a short-term job somewhere in anything, it's much better than sitting at home.'
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Follow Hannah Seaton on Twitter: @hannaseaton
Illustration: Marina Esmeraldo
At work? With your gran?
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