Majority of university students’ mental health suffers after graduation

“Life after university is not easy, you get thrown into the real world with no instruction manual,” says Jess Rodarte who suffered with depression following her graduation. Along with Jess, more than half of graduates surveyed for this article said their mental health suffered after leaving university.

25-year-old Jess from Los Angeles graduated in 2015 with a degree in Business Management at California State University. Jess went straight into a temporary job in payroll, but left after eight months due to the poor pay and having to work weekends. Having left that job, Jess got another in the entertainment industry, which is when the depression hit.

“The new job started off great, it paid more and it was in the entertainment industry. So it was pretty cool, until it wasn’t,” said Jess. “I started the job in January and by May the depression really hit. I was isolated at this job, I would drive an hour to work, get there and be there for eight hours and no one said a word to me. I was absolutely miserable.

“I cried on the way to work and cried on the way home. It was the worst time of my life. I would come home and go straight to bed, I completely shut down. My family finally told me that my happiness was more important than a job so with their blessing I quit my job after being there for five months.”

Fiona Christie, careers development and employability specialist, looked at the transitional challenges of leaving university. She said: “If you’ve done a degree in medicine or nursing, one of the really vocational degrees, it’s more straightforward for you. If you’ve done something in arts and media, it’s less clear. The media sector is sometimes more freelance contracts, so there aren’t as many structured, clear pathways. It’s a challenge.”


Fiona went on to add that leaving university can be a “big transition” for people: “They’ve been students and then you’re all of a sudden moving into another field. We often find that it’s harder than people anticipated – to kind of be on a path that’s clear. We know that people’s circumstances change and their career goals may change.

“There is some normal volatility for those early periods, the first two or three years after people graduate in particular. It’s interesting because in the past, if you look at the 90s, the research said typically it would take three years to settle in a career path.”

In a recent article by The Guardian, it was argued that students need more “meaningful” careers advice following Universities UK’s report that 30% of graduates find themselves “mismatched” into the jobs they fall into – proving that graduates and job security is still an issue now.

“I do feel sometimes that we should be candid about the fact that it isn’t plain sailing. It might be for some students but it often takes time – there’s a whole host of kind of issues that may impact where a person wants to be.”

In a survey conducted for this article, 36% of respondents said that finding a job or being unable to find one, was the main reason for them feeling low after university. In 2016, 1.75 million undergraduates finished their degree in the U.K – 3.1% of whom went on to be unemployed for a period of time, according to the Financial Times​. 3.1% would have been 54,250 graduates without a job.

As well as this, according to Business Insider, the percentage of workers who want more hours, or part-time workers who want better jobs, is nearly double the unemployment rate at about 9.7% (around 3.3 million people). Since 2002, there has been a 400% increase in zero hour contract jobs.

Fiona looked into the issue of underemployment with graduates: “It could be that someone is underemployed because they’re working part time,or it could be because they’re in a job that they feel overqualified for the job and therefore they’re not using their skills – there are several different definitions of underemployment.”

Margaret Powell, councillor at The University of Salford, explains how unemployment and depression can often come hand-in-hand: “If we are talking about people who are in the jobs market but haven’t been able to find a job, then we are still talking about a large sense of loss which is what depression mainly is – certainly a loss of pride, and even dignity sometimes.

“I graduated and got a job because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” But I didn’t have anything figured out, I had this degree and no idea what to do with it, and I still don’t!”

“We can find that people that have been unemployed for a long time start to neglect their own wellbeing and that’s usually one of the first signs and neglecting your wellbeing definitely leads to depression. It must be quite difficult to keep a circle of friends or a social life going when you don’t have any money, and you may feel like you haven’t to anything interesting to say if you can’t talk about what you’ve been up to during the day and what you’ve maybe been doing at work.”

In a recent Twitter poll, 77% of respondents agreed that students should have access to counselling services following graduation to help them through a difficult and uncertain period of their lives.

“I sometimes worry that graduates end up blaming themselves a bit,” said Fiona. “They think that they should or shouldn’t have done something when really they’ve done a lot of the good things. There are structural challenges around the labour market which means it takes a while to get the opportunity you want to get.

“What I noticed when comparing what people have been doing from six months and 15/20 months, you see a steady improvement. Slowly but surely people’s situations do improve. They have an adjustment of ideas sometimes.  There is uncertainty in this sort of period; I do feel sometimes that we should be candid about the fact that it isn’t plain sailing. It might be for some students but it often takes time – there’s a whole host of kind of issues that may impact where a person wants to be. There’s value to having career conversations with people, whoever that may be, to seek out help and advice.”

Jess explained how she felt when she graduated university: “When I was younger I would always say ‘I can’t wait to be in my 20’s, I’ll have everything figured out then, my life will fall into place.’ I think that’s what sent me into the dark hole of depression.

“I graduated and got a job because that’s what you’re ‘supposed to do’. But I didn’t have anything figured out, I had this degree and no idea what to do with it, and I still don’t! The one thing college doesn’t prepare you for is the real world! I had no idea who I was or what I wanted.”

Click the photo to listen to Margaret Powell’s experiences on students after university

Counsellor Margaret Powell advises that you go see your GP if you find that you’re struggling with your mental health, in particular if it’s due to unemployment or underemployment. She said: “There are lots of free self help groups and many of them are concerned with being active and being involved in an community again with other people which is extremely important if you’re unemployed.

“This is because there can be a feeling of isolation and one of the most important things is getting back into relating to people again. By trying to do something that causes you to feel like at the end of the day you feel like you have achieved something.”

  • For further help on coping with depression or if you’re just feeling lower than usual, visit sites like Mind‘s and the Mental Health Foundation‘s where you can access free advice.


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