Graduation Depression: Preparing for Change
For high school and college seniors, this is an exciting time. So close to the finish line All that hard work is about to pay off with a diploma and a bright, shiny new future. Woo-hoo! It’s Miller Time.
Okay, so what about when Miller Time’s over? Things can get a little less shiny. For many graduates, the reality of life after school, be it high school or college, is more complicated than they expected. In the best case, they adjust to whatever life is bringing to them. Worst case, they could be facing what might be their first bout of clinical depression.
And actually, it’s not surprising. Clinical depression is often brought on by stressors. A stressor is any external event, good or bad, that causes stress. If you’re susceptible to depression, even a small stressor can trigger it. But graduation is always accompanied by some big stressors. And they’re not always what you would think. Most people assume that a graduate who lands a good job is going to have smooth sailing ahead. But snagging that perfect job (or not) is not the only stressor that graduates are going to have to deal with.
Change is good. Without change, we’d still be single-celled organisms. But it also can be scary (I’ll bet the first fish that crawled out of the ocean had a major anxiety attack), especially for people who aren’t naturally adaptable. Adjusting to a major life change like graduation takes time, even if the graduate has been eager for the change and has a reasonably well-paying job that relieves them of financial strain. Not only is their living and employment situation changing, but their whole identity is changing, for the first time in their entire life. Goodbye, student. Hello 9 to 5 worker. Adjusting to this shift may be the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
Both high school and college graduates are usually being told by their family, either gently or in no uncertain terms, that they’re financially on their own now. Time to leave the nest, little birdie. So now you are responsible for room and board, health and auto insurance and all the other expenses you never had to think about.
And many students graduating from college have student loans. Usually the first payment is due anywhere between two weeks to a month after graduation. This can be a big shock to someone who’s just managed to come up with three months of rent for their new apartment and is already trying to figure out how to make $5.00 stretch for a week’s worth of meals (yes, that was me a month after I graduated college).
Loss of support system
For both high school and college graduates, the end of school inevitably means an end to their current support system of friends, and possibly also family, if they’re moving a distance away.
It takes a while to build up a new support system, and it’s almost never as easy. High school and college both provide ideal venues to run into friends, to hang out and share confidences. Work environments are just not as conducive to meeting people you can emotionally connect with, and providing somewhere to connect. So just when the support system is needed to deal with all this change and scary new responsibility, it’s gone.
Lack of Structure/New Responsibilities
While students chafe against the structure they needed to operate within while they were attending school, the fact is that it’s familiar. A lot of decisions, both large and day-to-day, are taken out of their hands. Sure, it’s liberating to make all your own decisions when you graduate, but it can also be scary. All of a sudden you have to decide where to work, where to live, how you’re going to get to work, what time to get up in the morning, etc. Everything from the little decisions to the big ones, and it’s all on you. Again, liberating - but also enough to send put some people into a catatonic state.
Anyone can be blue for a few weeks after a major life change. But if the normal adjustment period after graduation finds you slipping into clinical depression, you need to stop it in its tracks. Go to your family doctor or health clinic, get diagnosed and get treatment.
Deborah Gray wrote about depression as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She lived with undiagnosed clinical depression, both major episodes and dysthymia, from childhood through young adulthood. She was finally diagnosed at age 27, and since that time, her depression has been successfully managed with medication and psychotherapy.