Advice — How to deal with low self-esteem, anxiety and depression after graduation
After years of studying and hard work, graduation can bring an enormous sense of relief and euphoria. But for many grads, this high can quickly be followed by a low as they come to terms with the uncertainty that life outside of university can bring. And for some, this develops into depression. Having gone through something similar herself after graduating last year, Anoushka Khandwala recounts her experience before telling us where to look for help and how to deal with the ever-looming anxieties of life after graduation.
Towards the end of your final year, exhaustion can prevent you from thinking about future plans. Certainly for me, all I truly wanted to do was sleep for a fortnight. After this bout of fatigue passed, I surprised myself by having one of the best summers of my life; finally free from education for the first time ever.
When anyone asked, I joked that I was experiencing ‘graduate euphoria’. Of course, time passed, summer evaporated and winter appeared. Suddenly, I felt like there was literally no light in my life – I’d go to work and return home, perhaps glimpsing only half an hour of sunshine. Despite finding employment, for months, I felt awful, with little sense of direction and no foreseeable goals for the future. I’d achieved my dream of graduating from art school; what now?
A lack of structure is disorientating
As I’ve discovered through talking to fellow grads, this is not such an unusual feeling at this stage in your career – for many, it’s the first time they haven’t been in an institution. The change of pace from final deadlines to suddenly having no structure can be incredibly disorientating. “The weeks before deadline were a whirlwind of emotions; I was equal measures excited and worried,” says Ben Thornton, who graduated from Portsmouth University last year. “After graduation it’s a massive U-turn. You don’t know what to do. You go from doing a lot of things on full-speed, to stopping.”
After his degree, Ben went back to Southampton to live with his parents, whilst watching other people in his year going into jobs that they’d lined up pre-graduation. “My parents are working-class, and the first thing on their mind was me getting a job. So I worked at McDonald’s part-time, which I’d done all through uni, so going back was a wake-up call.”
Job rejections and a loss of community
Ben cites rejection during the job hunt as something that particularly ate away at him. The level of rejection directly correlated with his mental health, and once he’d found an internship in London, he felt more reassured. However, this brought its own set of challenges; “Building up networks in London after you graduate is hard,” he says, as he found that most design jobs he was looking at were situated in the capital.
The importance of finding community after university is emphasised by Joanna Eade from The Counselling Space. She explains that, “university is a time for being part of a community in various different aspects. You’ve got your studio community, extracurricular activities, you might have been part of special interest societies and suddenly that’s all gone. You might have moved across the country, and not have friends and work and stuff to do – suddenly you’re without a lot of these things and then you experience low mood.”
Social media highs and lows
Social media, after graduation, can act as the only connection to other people from your course. Whilst I found it was a good way to mask how I was really feeling – by curating this virtual world to showcase my achievements – Ben mentions that Handsome Frank’s take on social media, written for Lecture in Progress, helped him identify his feelings towards it.
“You’re always self-conscious about what you post,” shares Ben. “There’s a lot of societal pressure to post the best stuff, and it is very fake. I follow a lot of designers and it constantly gets me down, because I see their work and think these people are amazing. You’d never think that they’re only showcasing the best thing that they’ve done, rather than the process.” In the end, Ben ended up getting a job from his Instagram account, and claims his employers didn’t even look at his portfolio. But even though it worked out, the pressure of promoting yourself online – especially if you don’t feel able to do it in person – can be monumental.
When asked if there’s any advice he’d give to third years who are coming up to graduation, Ben says: “Start applying for jobs earlier than you think. Sit down with your lecturers and ask what industry is like. It’s okay to feel low, because it’s a change in your life. Take a few weeks to do nothing, relax, see people, go back to your hometown.”
Dealing with persistent sadness
Whilst depression is a spectrum, it’s important to understand its symptoms. NHS.uk explains that “depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days. When you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months.” The website states that depression is not trivial, that it’s a “real illness with real symptoms…not something you can ‘snap out of’ by ‘pulling yourself together’.”
The best place to start is by reading up on the symptoms of anxiety and depression (which can often arrive hand in hand), and understand that the manifestations range from mild to severe. The NHS website has a test that you can take to assess your mental health and urges you to seek help from a GP if you think you may be depressed, or if it’s an emergency, to visit A&E.
Healing and getting support
Where to look for help
Encountering imposter syndrome when first experiencing signs of depression is something many people are accustomed to, which can result in invalidating the illness’ symptoms. Accessing therapy was something that I found immensely helpful to my mental health, and as well as the NHS, Mind also offers free counselling sessions, and helpful tips for living with mental health problems, particularly for university students, in the workplace and beyond.
BACP also has a registered directory of private therapists such as The Counselling Space, many of whom offer concessionary rates. On top of this, the website Pennine Care offers a series of self-help guides which showcase the steps you can take to tackling these issues yourself. Ben mentions that talking to his family and friends was helpful at alleviating his low mental health, but for many, talking to someone who is removed from your situation is more helpful.
Taking better care of yourself
Alongside talking therapies, exercising, eating well and meditative practices are advised as home remedies for depression and feeling low, but it’s wise to remember that not everything works for everyone. Limiting time on social media, and embracing the physical by going out for walks, meeting a friend for coffee, or reading books, can often help put your anxieties into perspective.
Make time for things you enjoy
Joanna mentions a technique called ‘behavioural activation’, which links engaging with activities that you value, to getting a feel-good factor out of life, thus heightening your mood and increasing your positivity.
“Think about what you enjoy doing and factor it into your schedule,” advises Joanna. “Sitting on your bed looking at social media is an activity. So map out your routine, what you’re doing, and schedule in stuff – don’t just do nothing. If you’re struggling to find work, think about whether there’s anything in your value set that includes volunteering. Is there a community that you can be part of? Maybe it’s a sport or hobby; are there people you can tap into to build yourself a community of friends?”
Heal in your own time
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the past year, it’s the value of embracing and working through emotions, rather than feeling guilty – and therefore worse – about a low period, or being anything other than ‘happy’. Significant, meaningful periods of your life will often be followed by a lull, which can range from clinical depression to occasional sadness. This is natural. Give yourself a break. Let your mood evolve naturally and don’t try to force a change in order to feel better. Talk about how you feel; one of the best remedies for low mental health is identifying that same feeling in another person. Remember that feelings do pass and you are not alone.