With 49% of students surveyed admitting their mental wellbeing declined after leaving university (via the City Mental Health Alliance), post-university mental health issues are more commonplace than you might think. So why is no one talking about them?
"For me, leaving university was a bittersweet experience”, Mollie Davies, who graduated this summer, tells Cosmopolitan UK. “It very quickly went from being celebrated and recognised [for my achievements], to being thrown into a large pot of pressures. I traded the student union, lectures, and a big circle of friends in for something far more daunting: adulthood and the unknown.”
But often before graduates can even get to ‘adulthood’, a place of limbo ensues. The last eighteen years of any students’ life have been about education – a structured routine of security, friendships, and learning. University is so often the goal for young people, which is why it can feel so daunting when it’s over. When the familiar timetable of university seminars, lectures and events come to an end, they’re faced with the overpowering question, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’
"It’s a massive anti-climax", Counsellor Beverley Hills, who is a member of Counselling Directory, explains. "After years of structure, a feeling of 'what now?' descends. Consider this: you’ve been working all your life towards this single defining moment - 'The Degree' - but now the gates have clanged shut and you’re on your own, no wonder you feel lost."
It’s easy to see how leaving the comfort and familiarity of university can have a negative impact on your mental health. “I have no routine and I feel lonelier than ever”, Mollie continues. “I’ve been waking up at midday and going to bed earlier, because the truth is, nobody wants to leave behind something that has been the best time of their life.
“I’m scared, because for some people they can’t land their dream job, but for me, I don’t even know what that is", Mollie adds – and she’s not alone, either. Rachel Boyd from mental health charity MIND added that "people may feel societal expectations and pressures to take on the role and responsibilities of being an adult, as for the first time you may have to support yourself financially, and so you might be worrying about debt."
“I’ve dwindled in a downward spiral since graduating”, Mollie continues. “I spent the last three years focusing on the end result, and now it’s here, I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve come out of my education tens of thousands of pounds in debt, and have worked my bloody socks off, so why should I settle for something that doesn’t make me happy?”
It’s not just the impending duties that are intimidating, either: the average student has £50,000 worth of debt over their head when they leave university, which, paired with not knowing what job they want to do, can put a strain on their personal and physical health.
Student Minds, who produced a report using gradate focus groups alongside City Mental Health Alliance, spoke to over 300 recent graduates, and say 49% of those surveyed said their mental wellbeing declined after leaving university, while 44% felt their friends were doing better than them and 40% felt socially isolated.
On top of this, in a social media age where comparing yourself to anyone and everyone on your timeline is normal, it’s hard not to feel like you’re the one being left behind. Which is why Dr Andy Cope, author of Happiness: Your Route-Map to Inner Joy, recommends graduates stay away from ‘anti-social media’: “the platforms that showcase all your friends and those you follow with a career that you so desperately desire that gives them a flashy lifestyle. Those people may not be happy either, and even if they are, you’re not them.”
So, what can graduates do about it? Firstly, it's imperative to try and pin-point the severity of a students' graduate blues - is it mild, moderate or severe? Depression is first diagnosed using a checklist of questions about things like energy levels, mood, appetite and sleep.
From there, counsellor Beverley Hills advises "checking in with yourself to see what’s really going on. Talking to others about it - whether it's a counsellor or the Samaritans, because there are always people out there to support you in taking the next step. You’re not alone in this."
Mollie agrees, sharing that she's helped to combat her post-university blues by "keeping in contact with friends from university, because lots of them are probably struggling with the transition too, as well as pushing myself to get out of bed, and try new things outside of my comfort zone."
"Keep busy", Hills adds. "Being distracted by things you enjoy helps lift the mood and gets us out of bed! This finite transition will change if you are proactive and very few graduates find their dream job straight away."
As Hills says, landing your foot on your ideal career ladder might not happen straight away, so you have to be resilient, kind to yourself, and attempt different things - whether that's alternative job routes, or even post-university gap years to give yourself more time to think.
"For me, I definitely don't want to jump into a 'career' straight away", Grace Archer, who graduated in languages last summer, commented. "I need some time to think about what I really want to do with my life. I've moved back home for the time being to work in a supermarket and save some money to do a TEFL course and teach abroad in January.
"I'm trying not to worry about it. In the grand scheme of things, I'm still very young. I'd rather give myself some more time to be 100 per cent certain about my decision than jump into something and regret it later."
Counsellor Hills concludes, "be as kind and as understanding to yourself about how you're feeling as you would to a friend." You wouldn't put pressure on them to land their dream job immediately, or rush into something straight away, so don't do it to yourself, either.
While there's no doubt a desire to land your dream job and get on with the rest of your life immediately after graduating, this doesn't happen for everyone. And that's OK. Being a new graduate is a confusing, complicated time full of all kinds of mixed emotions - you're likely both happy and sad about university, and starting your first career in the 'real world'. Why rush into something if it doesn't feel right? The most important thing is looking after your mental health and putting yourself first, even if that means you're not breaking into the job of your dreams immediately.
If this resonates with you or sounds like someone you know, MIND offer a free advice service over the phone, email or text. The Mix is the UK’s leading support service for young people, offering to listen and offer advice via online, social or a free confidential helpline.
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