August 6, 2017 at 10:00 AM
Three years ago, I graduated from college, and after years of occasional all-nighters, skipped meals and serious stress over exams, I was looking forward to a new, calmer life. College in Denton, Tex., had been the time of my life, a place where I evolved from an apathetic, underachieving student to a social-activism-minded honor student. I felt immense pride when I walked across the graduation stage and began the hour-long drive home to Dallas.
And that first week at home felt great. By Week 3, though, something changed. I had a pervasive feeling of loss and, with a knot in my stomach, I stopped eating regularly. Within two months, I was so depressed, I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't believe anyone would understand. What I also didn't know was that my post-graduation emotional distress was not uncommon.
"If a student's college experience is mostly positive, college provides a cocoon of sorts: a community of friends, teachers and mentors who are mostly readily available to offer support or advice. Graduating symbolizes a leap into 'adult' life, which is a huge transition," said Juli Fraga, a psychologist based in San Francisco.
Although it's not an official diagnosis, "post-graduation depression" is commonly used to describe the extreme sadness and impaired functioning that recent grads report after they leave behind the world they created in college.
Post-graduation depression, therapists say, is understudied and probably underreported."Young adulthood isn't a population that is well studied at all. From a research perspective, it's hard to categorize them," said Sheryl Ziegler, a Colorado psychologist and licensed professional counselor who has many young clients.
According to therapists and postings in Internet chat rooms by recent graduates, symptoms of post-graduation depression include an abnormally negative perspective, decreased motivation to get out of bed, a general sense of hopelessness and, occasionally, substance abuse. "They often have . . . trouble motivating themselves to get a job," Ziegler said. "They are often lonely due to a lack of connection with friends. While young adults are in college, they may have been in an environment that was more accepting of alcohol and recreational drug use, and while depressed it's possible this is being used as a coping mechanism."
"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 who counseled students during a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley who now treats young adults in her practice.
While studies about post-graduation depression are hard to find — researchers tend to look at a variety of causes of depression in the 18-to-25 age group, not just leaving college — the Internet is full of personal accounts of the stomach-clenching blues that descend weeks after diplomas are handed out.
"I realized I was dealing with post-college depression specifically, because my depression was directly linked to things I had in college that I no longer had: namely, the experience of being a part of a tightknit community," said Alaina Leary of Quincy, Mass. "Even though my partner and I are extremely close, I felt suddenly very lonely. I had co-workers, but not the kinds of relationships I had in college," Leary continued.
Recent research suggests that millennials have the highest rates of depression and anxiety of any generation, with job concerns high on their list of worries. A study by the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences found an association between high rates of depression and high rates of social media use: People who reported being depressed tended to be active on many social media platforms.
"They are following their friends on social media and have this out-of-proportion sense that everyone else has figured it out and is getting jobs," Ziegler said. "They have a sense that everyone has it together but them, which causes them to further isolate themselves."
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 75 percent of mental-health conditions begin by age 24, which means that both the college years and the abrupt transition when it's over can be a particularly challenging time emotionally.
I had had some depression issues in my past, so I was vulnerable. But the biggest contributor to my post-graduation depression was having to adjust to a life that no longer aligned with my passions. In college, I had the freedom to shape my life based on my interests. It wasn't long before I discovered that the real world didn't work that way. The activist identity and experience I'd developed in college — staying on top of current events and attending local interest groups — came to a crashing end when I found myself working long days as an insurance claims adjuster, a job I jumped at when it was offered because I was worried I might find nothing else.
I'd hoped to find a position at a nonprofit that would allow me to make a difference, but there was a shortage of public service jobs in my area. I had applied for county and state positions such as child advocate, but it can take months to have your application acknowledged. So I found myself alone in a cubicle completing menial tasks such as informing insurance beneficiaries that we had received their claims and enforcing what I found to be some ethically questionable procedures. I was so emotionally exhausted at the end of each day that my ride home was filled with tears. I often just went to sleep without eating.
And to be honest, I was lonely. At my university, my friends were just a few doors down the corridor. We knew each other's schedules and would spend countless hours in one another's rooms. But now they weren't around. Most of my friends hadn't graduated; they were in class during my lunch break, and they were in a different city an hour away. I tried to keep up with them, but sometimes weeks passed with only minimal contact. It was a challenge, and many of my friendships didn't survive. Having no one to talk to made it harder to process my feelings.
But my friendships weren't the only relationships to change. My family had become accustomed to life without me around, and I often felt forgotten. Moving back home during early adulthood can lead to conflicts about rights, responsibilities, behavior.
I was 22 years old, but living at home made me feel a lot like a child.
Several months after graduation, my longtime boyfriend and I got married, and we arranged to move in with one of my grandparents. (Even as a couple we didn't make enough money to make it on our own.) But my depression prevented me from enjoying newlywed bliss. My husband, a low-ranking airman, and I worked opposing schedules. Soon I was sleeping more than 11 hours a day, and I hardly spoke to my new husband. I was angry and moody. My distance began to hurt him. After less than two months of marriage, we were considering divorce.
I felt immense pressure to find a job that was somehow related to the psychology degree I'd gotten in college; I wanted to take a first step in my career and start my life.
But it turns out that a bachelor's degree in psychology wasn't going to get me in any doors. I graduated with around $30,000 in debt. How would I ever pay it off if I couldn't find a good job? And more important, why had I spent four years in college if I wouldn't be able to use my degree? I was stuck with the insurance adjuster job.
After three months, I knew that to shake my feelings of sadness, I had to make some significant life decisions. I got a puppy for extra companionship. I made a bigger effort to connect with my best friend back at college. And, with much trepidation, I quit my insurance job with no backup plan. Our living costs were low, but I was nervous. I started a master's program in social work that I hoped would give me the credential to get a job I actually wanted. I also hoped that being back at school would help my mental health.
Maybe all of these steps would have improved things for me on their own, but, oddly, what finally broke my post-graduation depression came from an unexpected source: The military decided to relocate my husband to the Midwest. This meant that I had to start from scratch creating a life for myself. But this time we had our own place, thanks to my husband's position, and I took the opportunity to return to the sorts of things that had made college particularly gratifying: I got involved in my new community, and I met people through nonprofit groups and a church that we joined. And then, almost exactly a year after graduation, I was pregnant, and I didn't have time to focus on me and college days of the past. I was moving on, and impending motherhood gave new meaning to my life.
It's been nearly three years since I graduated from college. I still feel a touch of sadness that that time is over. But I have found ways to transform my campus involvement into community involvement.
The best part of college was having a mission — being involved in mentorship and leadership organizations, and feeling that I was making a difference. I do that now by being a freelance writer who spreads information on the mental health of marginalized groups and by being a mother. In the summer of 2014, I couldn't imagine life feeling good again — but it does.
Looking back, I believe that colleges and universities that value the mental health of their students should offer some sort of transition course. College can be similar to a utopian society: Its inhabitants are not really aware of the struggles that may await when that utopian world vanishes the day after graduation.
We aren't told that the mix of emotions that this transition triggers can have negative consequences on our mental health. But when I speak with recent grads, I tell them my story. Perhaps by talking about post-graduation mental health, I am using my degree after all.