The difficulties of students suffering from depression have been gradually eased into discussion at The University of Manchester, and the subject now makes regular appearance; just last week an entire day at the Students’ Union was dedicated to events aimed at improving the wellbeing and support networks of those who feel they might be struggling with their mental health.
This, categorically, is a good thing. With figures suggesting that one in four students in the UK are currently suffering from poor mental health, removing the stigma surrounding depression is an essential commitment that any university must make.
Why, then, if depression amongst students has become a topic of regular conversation, does post-graduate depression barely make its mark on the agenda?
Living alone for the first time, having to grow accustomed to new friends and a new city, and the pressure of managing financially on a student loan, paired with a crushing combination of exams, lectures and multiple deadlines makes for a student experience that could cause even the most stable of young people to experience a mental meltdown from time to time.
Nothing, however, can prepare graduates for the sheer lack of direction and structure they experience once they have left education. The entire maturing process achieved at university feels instantly reversed, with students forced to give up their social and financial independence by moving home.
Some find that their educational progression based on advice to ‘study what you love’ provides, at best, a shaky basis for eluding the well-known career market trap; need a job to gain experienced, too inexperienced to get a job. Those who go back to old retail or hospitality jobs understandably feel discouraged, especially when surrounded by those friends lucky enough to have found their dream job, or those who are not yet too crippled by student debt to deprive themselves of the opportunity to go and ‘find themselves’ travelling. In such circumstances, it is not all that surprising that graduates struggle with the ‘blues’, or in some instances more severe cases of mental health issues.
The fact is that universities are guilty of over-selling the power of a degree at a time where enrolment is at an all-time high. Regrettably, the market in degrees follows rules not all that different to those of economics; the more there are, the less they are worth.
This is not to say that studying a degree is of no value, but simply to suggest that students must be prepared for a period of — perhaps unemployed — transition once they graduate, and must not become disillusioned if the promises of fulfilling and prestigious career options do not instantly present themselves at graduation.
Mary Curnock Cook, the recently retired head of UCAS, commented that graduates should not worry about finding a job straight out of university, and advised that they spend time volunteering or travelling before making the first job application.
In theory, her argument is logical. Young people should take the necessary time to reflect upon their ambitions, perhaps make the most of the chance to live abroad or get a better sense of the opportunities available before rushing into the first job offered to them. Such breathing space might prevent a delayed case of the ‘graduate blues’, in which young professionals find themselves trapped a job that they took out of fear or panic.
In reality though, most graduates simply cannot afford to spend time out of paid employment, and Curnock Cook’s suggestions are decidedly too middle class to provide any substantial consolation to those students struggling financially.
Careers and counselling services within universities need to establish a means by which they can encourage students to start thinking about post-graduate life, whilst also reassuring students that it is perfectly normal to experience a ‘limbo’ phase, during which career paths or life ambitions might be hazy and overwhelming. Furthermore, counselling services should make clear that a helping hand can be extended to those students who have left the university, and that support is not abruptly cut off come the summer holidays.
Perhaps the simplest cure for those suffering from the ‘post-graduate blues’ could be the fundamental knowledge that, essentially, everybody else is going through the same thing.