As the spring semester ends for graduates, there’s joy and hope for what the future may bring. But for some, there’s debilitating anxiety or depression that forms from lacking job prospects to mourning the end of what had been one’s identity for so long. With graduation season and Mental Health Awareness Month coinciding in May, Reckon spoke with two graduates who dealt with post-grad adjustment disorder, often called post-grad depression, and a mental health expert on coping with stressful life changes.
According to therapist Dr. Janay Holland, adjustment disorder can be caused by major life changes such as a move, death, aging, or simply graduating from college and come with symptoms like stress, sadness, or hopelessness.
Caitlin Leggett, 22, is a North Carolina Wesleyan University 2022 graduate who juggled volleyball and double majoring in mass communications and computer information systems with a minor in journalism. Being a student-athlete was her identity for as long as she could remember. “[School and volleyball] were just something that came easy to me, and to know that I no longer have that was a very heavy weight,” says Leggett. And as her senior volleyball season ended in the fall of 2021 and graduation slowly approached, she wondered who she was and what her future would hold.
On top of a big part of her identity coming to a close, Leggett was going through a breakup with her college sweetheart. Life changes are expected, but experiencing all these adjustments at once weighed heavily. She was a planner who stuck to her plan, but that sense of structure and control of her life disappeared as her collegiate experience ended. This led to her adjustment disorder showing up as anxiety.
“It was less sadness and more like, ‘I’m scared. I’m genuinely scared. I don’t know what’s coming next. I don’t know how to deal with not knowing what’s coming next,’ and it’s affecting how I behave, and I don’t know what to do with this. And that was one of the things that pushed me into therapy,” Leggett says.
“Adjustment disorder is usually met with either high levels of anxiety or depression. Based on the type of adjustment, it’s usually how you run with it,” Dr. Janay Holland tells Reckon.
Understanding that post-grad adjustment disorder — despite being colloquially referred to as post-grad depression — manifests differently based on many factors is essential, Dr. Holland adds.
“One of the great things about adjustment disorder, it’s not [a diagnosis] that stands for long. We have to reassess every three to six months if we diagnose with adjustment disorder to make sure changes are taking place,” says Dr. Holland. She adds that this is less of a long-term diagnosis compared to a general diagnosis of anxiety or major depression.
For D’Shonda Brown, 27, a 2016 Spelman College graduate, her post-grad adjustment disorder was marked by anxiety and depression. She majored in English, graduated a year early, walked the stage a few months later, and was thrust into the real world.
“I felt so alone within those five months because I had just turned 21, but all my friends were still in school and going to parties. My post-grad depression started hitting around March 2017, when I moved back to New York [from] my mom’s house in North Carolina. I had a bad mental breakdown and anxiety attack, which eventually led to one of my first suicide attempts, and I went to therapy swiftly after that,” Brown tells Reckon.
According to Dr. Holland, someone in circumstances like Brown’s would fit into a high-performing achiever category and was going through two adjustments simultaneously, graduating early but not yet being 21. Her peers were still in school, attending class and parties, a structure she no longer had. “Academically, it said she was ready on paper, but emotionally, it sounded like they [she] still had so much more to grow. Adjustment disorder sometimes manifests from a social adjustment of not being used to being out here by [yourself], and you [can] feel really isolated and alone,” Holland tells Reckon.
Brown stopped therapy after she worked through her post-grad depression.
“I thought I was good. And in hindsight, I wasn’t. I stopped because I thought that the quote-unquote work was done. But, in all actuality, you’re never really done working on your mental health,” she says.
After about three years, Brown began having frequent panic attacks and started being depressed again, and she returned to therapy. Around this time, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, changing the world’s everyday lives and taking a toll on folks’ mental health, including hers. Hesitation when seeking professional mental health assistance is understandable due to the stigma that often comes with it, especially in the Black community, from what others think of you to wondering if it will even work for you.
But according to Dr. Holland, finding a good support system is vital. “Validation [from loved ones] goes a really long way with post-grad depression,” says Holland. Having friends or family sit on a first therapy session or showing up and acknowledging you’re going through something helps.
But finding a therapist that suits you isn’t easy or automatic, as they all aren’t the same. Dr. Janay Holland views finding the right therapist as trying on a pair of shoes.
“So, whether that’s race, gender, or sexuality, [ensure] you’re seeing someone you can openly speak to. Because if you’re not talking about your feelings, it won’t get better,” she says. Leggett has been to two therapists to date, trying them on for size. She wanted to find someone that could understand her intersectional identity as a Black bisexual woman from the South. And as Brown returned to therapy at the height of the pandemic, she found a new therapist best suited for her at the time.
If therapy is not possible, for whatever reason, Dr. Holland suggests these coping mechanisms to help manage post-grad adjustment disorder.
Journaling and reflecting: Write down the hurdles that you’ve already crossed. Sometimes for adjustment disorder, being able to say, ‘I actually do have some wins,’ can snap us out of it.
Goal Setting: Set a small, realistic goal. For example, instead of applying to 24 jobs because it feels overwhelming, try a smaller, manageable number like four job applications. Making a manageable to-do list of tasks can provide a sense of control and structure.
Friend or Family support: Find a friend or family member who can see and respect you and with whom you’re open to talking about your feelings.
Breathing techniques: Slow down and breathe. Focus on your breathing. Make it slow and steady. Breathe deeply, filling up the area between your navel and your rib cage. Breathe so that your belly goes up and down.