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Graduate blues: Why we need to talk about post-university depression

We all know that students can suffer from mental ill-health at university - but what about post-graduation depression? Clare Dyckhoff investigates

'University is the best few years of your life, enjoy it while it lasts and make the most of it - time goes so fast' - all examples of a plethora of clichés that potential and current students are constantly blasted with. 

It is true: university can be one of the best experiences of a young person’s life, wherein you study a beloved subject for three or four years and make the most of the opportunities offered. It seems like a simple equation for the majority; university plus new friends plus new experiences equals happiness.

But what happens once the glory days are over, the mortarboard is on and there’s a row of students smiling ear to ear, clutching their certificates showcasing years' worth of hard work, hangovers and great experiences? What happens next?

Statistics state that one in four students suffers from depression during their studies, but no official figures exist for graduates in the post-university transition. If a student is suffering from depression during their time at university, there are counselling services and student health centres able to help, not just to hear, but also actually to listen. There's a common misconception that university is just a three-year party with an alcohol supply that never ends - in fact, the party does end, and there is not enough being done to help with the clearing up after.

With the vast majority of students living away from home for the entirety of their university experience, trading new-found independence, power and responsibility for living back at home due to lack of funds can seem like an unnatural step back, or a regression to a pre-university self that was not so in control and independent. For some, returning to home comforts is preferred, but for many, feeling dependent with no real structure feels restrictive.

A spokesperson for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) stressed that these feelings are extremely common and nothing to be scared or ashamed of; but that it ‘doesn’t mean you have to put up with them’.

Post-university depression is nothing like the aftermath of a party. It is a serious matter in dire need of addressing. I spoke to 40 current students and recent graduates, and 95 per cent believed that post-university depression was very much a real thing, with a further 87 per cent saying that there should be more exposure on it. 

One student believed that it should fall on the media to expose the issue of post-university depression and with an article dating back to 2001 on the topic, and not a lot else, this view holds some truth.

Others were concerned that it is not awareness that is required but a distinct change of attitude, a testament that the treatment, understanding, and outlooks toward post-university depression also need re-evaluating.

Studying for a degree brings its own stresses, and students should not be disheartened or discouraged by anyone who devalues what they are doing; it should be acknowledged that help is within reach if the post-university prospects do not exceed or live up to expectations that students may have for their futures.

In the few months, or weeks in some cases, between exam period to graduation date, and graduation ceremony to ‘real world’, a lot is expected to change in a short period of time, and the transition is not always an easy one. There needs to be more focus from the authorities on the transition from university to employment. One student surveyed wanted universities to start reassuring graduates that not having a job to walk into does not automatically equal failure.

Questions arose as to how realistic seeking help from university counseling services was once students have left, Sally Ingram, Durham University’s director of counselling services said that 'of the 1,000 students our service saw last year, only 12 reported this issue as a potential concern'.

She admitted that solid figures for those who experience post-university depression are hard to gauge because, by its very nature, it’s a post-university issue, and many people might not seek help from university services once they have left. So where do recent graduates seek help if they need it?

The BACP gives the following advice for anyone who is concerned they are experiencing post-university depression. Primarily, 'it’s good to talk', so the first step is to open up to friends, colleagues, family members or a partner. By telling someone how the movement from university to real world is making you feel, often a positive result can be reached.

If this does not help, then you are advised to seek professional help. In a safe, confidential place, anyone suffering from post-university depression can talk with trained counsellors, with some private conselors offering an initial free session and concessionary rates for job seekers and those on low wages.

Durham University’s counselling service recommends that students seek the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies service in their area, as well as the helpline services offered in our area by Mental Health matters, so experiencing difficulties once leaving university should never be unheeded. it’s time to break the silence.