'Gap Year' Depression?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

A gap year is usually thought of as a 12-month break between finishing study (usually college) and starting work. For many young people, it’s a period of doing something radically different, such as long-distance travel. For others, it’s a way of making some extra cash, or volunteering for a worthy cause, or gaining skills that may contribute toward a higher degree or one's career.

The gap year experience is generally regarded as a good thing. At minimum, it’s seen as a way of increasing confidence and independence. Harvard College, for example, actively encourages potential students to take a gap year. The school's site notes that “Harvard’s overall graduation rate of 97 percent is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off.”

But does the gap year work for everyone? Clearly there are some practical reasons why people might not opt for a gap year. It can be costly and potential employers look on some customary gap-year activities less favourably. (A year globetrotting may be personally fulfilling but not everyone views such activities in the same way.)

Similarly, if a great deal of your gap year was spent doing nothing much — and doing it fairly slowly — you may find that lack of constructive activity backfires when it comes to study or job applications.

Emotional effects

What is often missing from the list of pros and cons of the gap year is the potential emotional effect. It’s easy enough to locate the emotional positives, as in this article on the "Mental Health Impact of a Gap Year," by Jesse Viner, M.D. But the negative are less obvious. In order to find these, we need to search out the student chat rooms and comments.

I don’t wish to imply that the gap year causes depression, but some anecdotal evidence suggests the way the year is used may be a cause for concern. This thread from Reddit.com is just one example. After experiencing depression during the first year of college the person decided to take a gap year. “I'm a few months into my gap year and I've never regretted anything more in my entire life. The depression has been getting worse, and all I do is sit at home all day in bed. I'm so lonely that some days I want to die.” Simply typing in "gap year depression" in a search engine reveals similar discussions.

Universities and colleges are only too aware of the levels of depression and anxiety among students. A 2016 UK survey of Britain’s students reveals roughly a quarter have mental health issues of some sort, with depression and anxiety topping the list.

Not as planned

The gap year may be in danger of becoming something other than originally intended. In this clip from The Guardian newspaper a student decides to take a gap year before starting her PhD. She feels she has wasted a year and has developed symptoms of depression.

Isolation is another feature. In this thread from The Student Room, the person feels lonely, partly as a result of her other friends going straight to university. My point is you don’t need to look hard to find that the gap year is increasingly being used as a form of retreat or sanctuary. I’ve met and helped young people in this very situation. It can be a confusing time, with some young people feeling pressured into doing activities they're uncomfortable with.

Students' motivations for taking a gap year are highly varied, but some young people clearly usie it as a means of recovery. In these situations, my concern about the gap year is the very word "gap." Many schools and universities have systems in place to support students who experience depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. The gap year potentially falls between formal support structures and as such provides nowhere for the person to turn unless they seek help. Perhaps it’s time for some enterprising researcher to look a little deeper into the gap year and what it really represents.

See more helpful articles:

Adolescent Male Depression

Despondency at Life’s Crossroads

Depression in the Dorms