Signs, Causes, and Coping Tips

Via Peters

Life after college can be tough. If you’ve felt a little down — or more than a little down — since graduation, you definitely aren’t alone.

Many people find the post-grad transition period difficult. Some even go on to develop post-grad depression, meaning they feel so low, tired, or unmotivated they begin to have a hard time functioning in daily life.

Depression among young adults ages 18 to 25 has steadily risen over the past decade. Young adults now have double the rate of depression as the general population (people over the age of 18).

The table below breaks down the statistics reported in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Not all young adults experience depression after graduating from college. That said, the transition out of school does serve as a common trigger.

Once you toss that cap into the air, a barrage of social, financial, emotional, and even existential challenges might come tumbling your way all at once.

Why do so many college graduates feel depressed? Do those mood changes always suggest depression, or could they relate to something else? What can you do to feel better?

Find answers to these questions below, plus get more details on post-grad depression.

Not sure how to tell whether your post-graduation blues are depression or just growing pains? Time is a big factor.

Depression typically makes you feel sad, low, or hopeless nearly every day, in most situations, for at least 2 weeks.

The severity of your symptoms can offer another big clue. It’s perfectly natural to feel tired or stressed during transition periods. But if you spend most of your day in bed, or feel so distraught you can’t concentrate, then something more serious may be going on.

A few ways post-grad depression might show up in your life:

  • Guilt, shame, or self-loathing. You may regret how you spent your time at college, wishing you’d studied harder or spent more time with friends. Maybe you criticize yourself for choosing the “wrong” major or the “wrong” school.
  • Cynicism and irritation. When your degree doesn’t get you where you expected, you may feel deceived or cheated. Your anger at the situation may spill over into other parts of your life.
  • Difficulty feeling pleasure. Perhaps you have trouble enjoying your old hobbies without your college crew around. Everything you do without them may seem boring or pointless.
  • Hopelessness. Scrolling through social media might give you the impression your classmates are all doing fabulously. Feeling as if you’vemissed the boat to a better future, you might desperately wish you could go back in time for a do-over.
  • Lack of motivation. It can be hard to move forward when all the roads in front of you seem fraught with potholes and sharp turns. You may have trouble pushing yourself to send out resumes or find new roommates.
  • Change in appetite. Depression can leave you constantly hungry, or it can make planning and preparing every meal feel like a chore. Changes in your eating patterns might lead to unintentional weight loss or gain.
  • Sleep issues. Depression can throw off your sleep cycle. You may find yourself exhausted, sleeping into the afternoon, or struggling to get any sleep at all.
  • Brain fog. You may forget simple things like where you left your keys or have trouble focusing at your job. Even straightforward decisions, like what to eat, can feel overwhelming.

Graduating from college typically won’t cause depression directly.

But if you have a higher risk of developing depression, the stress you face during this period, or any major life challenge, could lead to depression.

Graduation-related stressors may include:

The job hunt

Plenty of people fresh out of college have a hard time getting a job in their field that pays in cash rather than “experience” or “exposure.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2022, adults ages 20 to 24 have an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent — nearly double the national average.

Many college graduates are caught in limbo: They don’t have the experience to qualify for many high-paying jobs, but they have to compete for lower-paying jobs with teens, who companies can legally pay under minimum wage for the first 90 days.

As an added complication, some members of your family or social circle may not understand or acknowledge this current economic reality. They might assume you’re simply choosing not to work — when in fact you apply to jobs regularly, only to receive a steady stream of refusals.

Underemployment

As of December 2021, 41 percent of recent college graduates report underemployment, meaning they have a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree.

There’s nothing wrong with retail or gig work, of course. But it can feel pretty darn demoralizing to spend 4 years or more, not to mention thousands of dollars, to study a specific subject and then not be able to find a job in your field.

Contrary to popular belief, a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) isn’t a guarantee against underemployment. In 2019, one in 15 recent STEM graduates were working outside their field of study, involuntarily.

Student loans

According to the Education Data Initiative, 65 percent of college graduates leave school with student loan debt. The average starting balance for graduates with bachelor’s degrees:

  • $30,030 for public universities
  • $33,900 for private, nonprofit universities
  • $43,900 for private, for-profit universities

Having that much money hanging over your head can dampen your outlook, to say the very least. You may feel like no matter how much you work, you’ll just fall further behind.

Hefty student loan debts can also lead to thoughts of suicide. In a 2021 survey of 2,300 high-debt borrowers, one in 14 reported considering suicide. Among borrowers who were unemployed or made less than $50,000, one in eight people reported considering suicide.

Loneliness

Many colleges offer a built-in community of peers, most of them at the same developmental stage as you. College campuses also provide plenty of opportunities for spontaneous socialization, and you can often structure your class schedule to have plenty of free time.

After graduation, though, you might find socializing quite a bit harder. Friends move away, or get busy corporate jobs. If you choose not to move back home, you may lose touch with your family, too.

It can take time to rebuild your social network. In the meantime, loneliness and a weakened support system can leave you more vulnerable to depression.

According to a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, young adults ages 18 to 25 had a mean loneliness score of 47.87, compared to the national average of 44.03.

This score makes young adults the loneliest age group — even lonelier than adults over the age of 65, who had a mean loneliness score of 40.

The state of the world

In addition to loneliness and financial difficulties, today’s graduates have an array of existential crises in front of them:

This combination of threats has hit many young adults especially hard. After all, they’ll have to survive in whatever society grows out of these concerns.

It’s pretty difficult to feel hopeful about the future when you aren’t sure one will even exist.

One recent survey screened 15,000 graduate students for depressive symptoms. According to the results, the rate of depressive symptoms increased more than two-fold between 2019 and 2020: from 15 percent to 32 percent.

Depression that happens after graduation may not always relate to any post-grad challenges you experience — though those difficulties can absolutely contribute to mood symptoms.

Mood disorders like major depression and bipolar disorder often first appear in early adulthood, too. According to 2022 research, roughly 23 percent of mood disorders begin between the ages of 18 and 25.

Other mental health conditions that may show up around this age include:

  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSDs). Issues with your body’s internal clock can make it hard to get consistent, high-quality sleep. You may feel fatigued and fuzzy-headed, but you probably won’t have the persistent hopelessness or self-criticism that often characterizes depression.
  • Schizophrenia. Like depression, schizophrenia can involve social withdrawal, sleep problems, and loss of interest in everyday life. But schizophrenia also involves psychosis, which includes symptoms like hallucinations or catatonia.
  • Seasonal depression. Most people with seasonal depression experience symptoms in winter, but some do experience depression in spring, around graduation time. Unlike major depression, spring depression will likely improve when the season changes.
  • Adjustment disorder with depression. As mentioned above, this condition involves difficulty coping with a stressful or challenging life event. You might feel sad, hopeless, or cry more than you typically would. It generally improves within about 6 months, but therapy can still have benefit in the meantime.

While you can’t snap your fingers and fix all of the societal issues that make post-grad depression so common, you can take action to help yourself feel better.

A few strategies to try:

Take advantage of alumni services

Many colleges provide career services for new graduates.

You can use these services to access things like free resume editing, career coaching, or alumni-exclusive mentorship programs.

You paid for these services with your tuition, so don’t hesitate to use them.

Catch up with friends

Social media often makes people seem much busier and happier than they really are.

If you already miss your college days, there’s a good chance your old friends do, too. But if everyone finds reasons to avoid reaching out, you might lose the opportunity to maintain your friendships.

You might not be able to return to college, but you can still hold on to those connections. Even a short phone conversation or video chat can help renew your bond and leave you feeling less alone.

Start small

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by everything going on in your life and the world. If you feel lost, try starting with one small, easy goal.

For example, you might commit to having breakfast each morning for a week. Health is holistic: Improving one part of your overall well-being — boosting physical energy by getting enough nutrients each day — can indirectly help other areas of well-being, like your mood.

Plus, if depression makes everything feel impossible, a small success under your belt can remind your brain that you can make a change and stick with it.

Go easy on yourself

Plenty of of unfair stereotypes and stigma surround people who find the post-grad period difficult. You may find yourself unfairly cast as “irresponsible” or “lazy” for having a tough time finding work or feeling motivated.

Depression is not laziness. It’s a mental health condition that has tangible effects on your mind and body.

While it may not always feel easy, try not to take these messages to heart. Having mental health symptoms and living in a society under upheaval doesn’t make you a bad or lazy person.

Remember, too, that you worked hard for years to get the grades to graduate. Someone with a poor work ethic probably couldn’t have accomplished that.

Treatment for depression can involve therapy, antidepressant medications, or a mix of both.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to experience major depression or thoughts of suicide before you “deserve” support. Treatment can have benefit whenever depression begins to affect your:

  • daily life
  • relationships with romantic partners, friends, family, or co-workers
  • performance at school and work

Types of therapy used to treat depression include:

Learn more about treatment for depression.

A few options for finding a therapist after college include:

Referral

After you graduate, you won’t be able to set up free appointments at your college counseling center anymore. But you can still ask for referrals to local mental health resources.

You can also check in with your regular doctor or healthcare professional, if you have one.

Online database

Some mental health organizations, like the American Psychological Association or Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists, offer a free online directory you can use to find mental health professionals near you.

Teletherapy platforms

Some platforms offer subscription-based online therapy. These services often charge by month or week instead of by session. You can use these platforms to connect with a therapist via chat room, email, telephone, or live video.

Insurance provider directory

If you currently have health insurance, you might start by checking for mental health professionals in your network.

Not all mental health professionals take insurance, but many do. You can check with your insurance company, or visit their website, for a list of available professionals.

Even if you find a therapist who doesn’t take insurance, your insurance company might offer reimbursement for out-of-network providers. Checking your policy is a great place to start.

In search of more free or low-cost options for therapy? Check out our guide to therapy for every budget.

It’s common to feel discouraged and depressed after graduation. Many recent college graduates find post-grad life more difficult than they anticipated.

Just know you don’t have to go through this transition on your own. Plenty of resources exist to help new graduates, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help when you need it — and connect with friends and loved ones when you feel alone.


Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.


https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/post-grad-depression

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