You work towards that moment, not just for the three or four years you spend at university but, effectively, for many, many years prior.
Finally, you throw that mortarboard in the air and clutch that rolled-up certificate. You are a graduate. That feeling of liberation and pride is immense.
But then, for some, it dissipates…
Some graduates struggle with mental health issues after graduation, most commonly depression. Whether it is due to work, loneliness, unemployment, or simply moving back home – particularly for international students – the feeling is one of sadness, even loss, from leaving what had become the familiarity of university life.
Many, even those working stable jobs, get this feeling of: ‘what now?’
Toby Markley* told Study International when he left university he felt relief and joy, like he was ready to face the working world back home; it was what he had been working for, after all. But once he found himself there, unwanted feelings began to creep in.
“I’ve found it really hard to adjust to working life,” he said bluntly.
“Ever since school there’s always been something to work towards: I would tell myself just a few more years of school then sixth form, just a couple years of sixth form then uni, just a few years of uni then work.
“Now my life could be pretty much the same for the next 45 years and it’s really got me thinking about whether I’m actually enjoying what I’m doing… which I’m not. Not at all.”
And he’s not alone in these feelings.
Counselling Directory member Michael Bryant told Study International there is a “worrying trend” in rising cases of anxiety and depression upon leaving university.
With over 30 years’ experience in a range of mental health professional roles, including working as a counsellor at two London universities, Goldsmiths and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Bryant shared his expertise with Study International.
“Student graduates experience more emotional problems as they struggle with vastly decreased economic and occupational opportunities than those faced by their parents’ generation,” Bryant said, adding that he sees this particularly in the UK, “where graduates from only a few years ago were supported in ways that now do not exist.”
Current graduates’ parents had access to free tuition, a wider choice of scholarships and more job options, Bryant said.
So god damn depressed about the thought of moving back home after I graduate
— Gabrielle Tagg (@GabrielleTagg) March 30, 2014
“Today’s graduates [from all over the globe] face debts from tuition fees and significantly increased accommodation costs.”
And things are accelerating: “Like everyone else in my field, I’ve noted each year an increase in severe mental health presentations while a simultaneous decrease in available public mental health services.”
“Increased anxiety and depression may arise with today’s graduates who face stiffer competition for fewer jobs or having to consider work for which they are overqualified and underpaid,” Bryant explained.
Other graduates face accepting work unrelated to their studies or being unable to obtain employment at all.
Either way, many end up having to move back home with their parents after living independently for the last few years, thus earning them the term ‘boomerang generation’.
Graduates can also struggle with a lack of free time in job positions they do not enjoy as well as loneliness when separated from friends.
Madeline Oakley* experienced feelings akin to grieving when she returned to the US from the UK upon completion of her undergraduate degree.
“At university, I enjoyed the subject I studied and had lots of free time to follow my passion, not to mention I lived with my best friends,” she told Study International.
“Now my friends live thousands of miles away from me in countries all over the world in different time zones with different schedules. It seems unlikely we will all find the time, or money, to see each other in person.”
Markley feels the same: “Now I live at home again, I spend a large amount of my day at a job I am not remotely passionate about. I spend the rest of my day chasing my passion.
“This leaves barely any time to see my friends, and as I don’t live with them anymore I find it much harder. I feel really lonely.”
Markley also harbours guilt for not feeling happy.
“My situation is really good by most standards,” he admits. “I work close to home, I work reasonable hours, my colleagues are all lovely people, but I just don’t feel fulfilled.”
Whilst these emotions are without a doubt real, graduates should rest assured that they won’t last forever.
Graduation is a time of great change, especially for those leaving their adopted university country and moving back home. While some step forward in leaps and bounds, others may feel they are left behind or even taking a step back by returning to their childhood beds.
As Byrant tells a new cohort of students and graduates struggling with their mental health that it will be okay, it is important to remember these feelings are temporary. There is a light at the end of it. You will find yourself in the company of new friends and most probably, in even more meaningful relationships.
You will find a balance between working life and your passion and you may well even find yourself in a job which combines the two.
And most importantly, you still have plenty of time. There are many who only go on to find success and fulfillment much later in life.
Not convinced? Let’s look at these real-life success stories. Heard of Stan Lee? Of course you have. How could you not? Lee is only the world-famous comic book writer and film executive producer behind the legendary Marvel Universe. And these achievements did not happen overnight: Lee created his first hit comic “The Fantastic Four” in 1961, just as he was about to celebrate his 39th birthday.
There’s also Vera Wang, who is easily the world’s greatest icon when it comes to wedding dress designs. Wang reportedly only entered the fashion industry at age 40. Before that, she was a figure skater and journalist.
What about Harland Sanders aka Colonel Sanders, the white-haired bespectacled face of world-famous fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders was 62 when he franchised KFC in 1952. Before finding success, Sanders couldn’t hold down a job for long, moving from farm help to conductor, railroad fireman, salesman and even a soldier in the US army.
Point is: it’s going to get better.
And if you are feeling low, you can always talk to someone.
“Find a supportive friend or family member to share [your] issues with,” Byrant advises.
“It still surprises me the number of people who keep their feelings concealed when they are feeling low.”
Alternatively seek help from local mental health services, through your doctor or a counsellor, and keep in mind what you are feeling is valid. There will be people to listen, understand, and help you get yourself back on track and ready to begin your new exciting life as a graduate.
If you had a fantastic time at university, the thought that the best years of your life are over may consume you… But really, the best is yet to come.
* Names have been changed.
Liked this? Then you’ll love…
‘It’s okay to not be okay’: Students share mental health advice
We are not talking about mental health enough at university, says psychologist