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Going to college can be a transformative experience that gives you new skills, friendships and a new perspective on life. You might have a whole range of new experiences and emotions, including college depression. As your college experience comes to an end, it’s far from uncommon to develop feelings of depression or anxiety.
Post-college depression, or post-graduation depression, is a term that refers to the symptoms of depression that often develop after finishing college.
The symptoms of post-graduate depression can vary in severity, and a variety of factors may all play a role in its development.
Below, we’ve explained what post-college depression is, how it could affect you and the specific factors that may increase your risk of feeling depressed after graduating from college.
We’ve also explained what you can do to deal with post-college depression and better manage your transition from academic life to professional life.
For many people, graduating and entering the “real world” is an exciting and positive experience that signals a new chapter in life.
However, after tossing their graduation caps, many college graduates find that transitioning from the world of academics into the world of business, public service or another career path is often a stressful and even depressing experience.
Post-graduate depression isn’t a clinical term, and it’s not a form of depression that you can find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
However, it’s a real issue that affects many people as they start to leave college life behind.
A variety of mental disorders may be behind the post-graduation depression symptoms that can occur after college for many people.
For some people, leaving college life behind for a more conventional nine-to-five job may cause an adjustment disorder — a type of disorder that can develop when a person is forced to cope in the wake of a stressful or difficult event.
Adjustment disorders can develop when people undergo general life changes, run into financial issues or just move to a different location.
Sometimes, the difficulty of coping with change may cause feelings of sadness, hopelessness or social withdrawal.
For other people, the sudden life change involved in leaving college may act as an early trigger for major depressive disorder (MDD, or clinical depression) — a serious mood disorder that can develop in the wake of severe stress or major life changes.
Because post-college depression isn’t a clinically recognized form of depression, there’s no set list of symptoms that only occur after leaving college.
If you develop an adjustment disorder after finishing college, you might notice that you feel sad, hopeless or withdrawn from life.
You may have less of an interest in maintaining friendships and feel nervous or tense in certain situations.
Sometimes, adjustment disorders can involve defiant or impulsive behavior, as well as physical symptoms such as twitching and trembling.
If the end of your college years acts as a trigger for major depressive disorder, you may develop a range of emotional and physical symptoms. Signs of depression include:
Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness and anxiety
Increased irritability and a feeling that you have a shorter temper
Feeling as if you’re guilty, worthless or unable to be helped
A negative outlook and a perception that your situation is hopeless
Fatigue, decreased energy and slowed movement and speech
Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or excessive sleeping
A reduced ability to make decisions
A reduced level of interest in your hobbies, passions and normal activities
Difficulty remembering things or concentrating on specific tasks
Physical pains, aches, cramps and digestive issues that don’t improve with treatment
Changes in your weight and/or appetite
Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts
You may not experience all of the symptoms. To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, you’ll generally need to experience some of the symptoms above on a daily or near-daily basis for a period of at least two weeks.
Our guide to the symptoms of depression provides more information on the key signs you may notice if you’re depressed.
Depression after college graduation can potentially affect anyone. Both clinical depression and adjustment disorders affect men and women of all ages and backgrounds.
Research suggests that a variety of genetic, environmental and psychological factors all play a role in your risk of becoming depressed. You may have a higher risk of developing depression or an adjustment disorder after college if you:
Have a family history of depression or other forms of mental illness. Depression is at least partly genetic, meaning you may be more likely to feel depressed after college if your close family members have also been affected by depression.
Moved to a new city after graduating from college. The sudden change involved in moving to a new location — and, for many people, leaving behind old friends and your previous social life — may be involved in the development of post-college depression.
Have significant student loan debt. Financial issues are a known cause of adjustment disorders, and the stress that’s involved in paying off a large student loan balance could contribute to an elevated risk of developing major depression.
Find it difficult to get a job after college. If you find it difficult to get a full-time job after college, this may contribute to financial pressure and existential anxiety — problems that could play a role in the development of depression.
Start a stressful, difficult career. Careers with long hours and demanding workplace environments may contribute to stress and depression. Demanding work environments can also contribute to burnout, which may involve similar symptoms to depression.
Have a physical illness or use medication. Certain physical conditions and diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, contribute to an elevated risk of depression. Some medications used to treat these conditions may also worsen depression.
Depression can ebb and flow throughout life. If you’re previously suffered from depression, the sudden changes that are involved in adjusting to post-college life could have an effect on your mental health and increase your risk of experiencing a depression relapse.
Whether depression develops during adolescence, after college or during your professional life, it’s almost always a treatable mental health disorder.
If you’re feeling depressed after leaving college or graduate school, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral or contacting a psychiatrist or psychologist in your local area.
If you’re still attending college, you may be able to access care via your campus’s health center.
You can also connect with a licensed psychiatry provider from home using our online psychiatry services.
Your healthcare provider may ask you certain questions about your symptoms. Try to provide as much information as possible about how you currently feel and behave.
Being open, honest and detailed helps your mental health provider reach an accurate diagnosis.
Depression often improves over time with psychotherapy, antidepressants and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Your mental health provider will recommend the most appropriate treatment based on your symptoms and needs.
Antidepressants are medications that treat the symptoms of depression. They work by changing the levels of certain naturally occuring chemicals, referred to as neurotransmitters, in your brain and body.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating your mood and behavior. The most common antidepressants — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs — work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
If you’re prescribed an antidepressant, it may take several weeks of use before you’re able to notice improvements in your moods and other symptoms.
Our full list of antidepressants provides more information about the medications currently used to treat depression.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is commonly used to treat depression and adjustment disorders that can occur after a sudden change in your life.
As part of therapy, you’ll work with a mental health professional to identify the specific emotions, thoughts and behaviors that cause you to feel depressed.
You’ll learn strategies for dealing with your depression and ending self-defeating or damaging ways of thinking.
One form of therapy that’s often beneficial for post-graduation depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Depending on the type and severity of your symptoms, your mental health provider may suggest therapy on its own or in combination with antidepressants.
Focus on healthy living. Healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep and exercising on a regular basis, can help to treat depression symptoms. Try to get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, as well as at least two muscle-building workouts.
Keep in touch with college friends. You can ease the transition to post-college life by keeping in touch with your college friends. If you’re in a different city, try contacting your friends via phone, video or messaging applications to keep in touch remotely.
Develop your life in your new location. If you’ve moved to a new city after college, it may help to develop your life there. Try attending events, going to meetups and getting out of the house to meet new people and develop new friendships.
Look back on your accomplishments. If you’re just beginning your career, it’s easy to feel like you haven’t accomplished anything yet. Try reflecting on your accomplishments, such as graduating from college and taking the first steps towards a new future.
Focus on making gradual improvements. Depression doesn’t get better overnight, but it does get better over time. Try to make a small amount of progress towards the life you want every day — over the course of months and years, it will start to add up.
Wait until you feel better to make any big decisions. If you’re considering changing to a new career, returning to college or other major changes, try to delay any big decisions until you’re feeling mentally well.
Our list of self-help strategies for depression shares more techniques that you can use to make progress towards overcoming depression.
It’s far from uncommon to develop post-grad depression when you transition from college into a new lifestyle.
While it can seem overwhelming, many people are able to progress through it with the right combination of habits, support and, if needed, professional help.
If you’re struggling with post-college depression, you can seek help by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral. You can also access help from home via our online mental health services.
Depression is treatable, and with the right approach, you can get through it and enjoy a fulfilling, rewarding life after college.
Interested in learning more about dealing with depression? Our guide to depression shares the most common types of depression and their symptoms, while our free mental health resources provide proven strategies for coping with depression and other forms of mental illness.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.