You have made it to high school graduation. Congratulations on completing about 13 years of education and growing up! Quite likely, you are experiencing a mix of feelings both positive and negative. Fear, anxiety, sadness, and loss accompany relief, accomplishment, and joy on the emotional rollercoaster of graduating from high school. Rest assured, this is a normal part of the process.
COVID-19 Hijacked Graduation
The current pandemic of COVID-19 and resulting shut-downs and stay-in-place orders across the world have created unique feelings and experiences for high school seniors in 2020. In addition to the typical mixed emotions associated with graduating from high school, the COVID-19 experience has disrupted senior years in unprecedented ways.
If you happen to be a senior in the United States in 2020, you quite likely had an abrupt and unceremonious end to your K-12 years. You went to school one day and never returned. You may have finished school online, or if you were passing your classes and had your credits, you suddenly were considered graduated and done.
Either way, there was no ceremony to celebrate your accomplishments. Your final trimester or semester of “lasts”— last extracurricular activities, last prom, last final day of school— didn’t happen. Therefore, the feelings of depression and anxiety we’re about to explore may be more intense for you. Know, however, that you will move forward to embrace your new, independent adulthood.
Factors That Could Lead to Post-Graduation Depression and Anxiety
Upon high school graduation, you are propelled into a whole new world filled with possibilities and a great deal of unknowns. Many graduates quickly realize that their hard-earned diploma doesn’t fully prepare them for the next step: independent, adult living. New challenges await, and you might worry that you’re not prepared for them.
Experiencing anxiety and depression during this important time of your life is not uncommon.1 Several factors contribute to both anxiety and depression as you make the transition into independent adulthood:
- Unrealistic Expectations
This transition is exciting and can be full of positive potential, and it can also be overshadowed by the unknown. A study of graduates (the participants were new college graduates, but the findings equally apply to high school graduates) found that uncertainties about the future can cause significant, sometimes paralyzing, distress and anxiety.2
That feeling of “Now what?” can stop you in your tracks. Confusion about what to do next, whether you can afford independent living, and who will be part of your next stage is exacerbated by an abrupt change in routine. The structure and schedules you followed for the first 17 or 18 years of your life have suddenly disappeared, leaving you more self-reliant than ever. This can bring a sense of overwhelm and vulnerability that contributes to depression and anxiety.1
As if facing this unknown new frontier of your life weren’t scary enough, many high school graduates experience a big change in relationships. Whether you’re headed to college or into the workforce after high school, you and many of your friends go in separate directions, often to different towns or even states. You might be leaving home for the first time in your life. Your parents, teachers, coaches, and other mentors aren’t physically accompanying you on your continued journey. This can feel like a huge loss and sometimes leads to separation anxiety and adjustment difficulties.
Separation anxiety isn’t just for young children but can happen to people of any age.4 According to authorities like the Mayo Clinic5 and Anxiety Canada,6 life stressors and transitions like graduation can cause separation anxiety. Feeling a sense of loss and mourning your “old” life can make it difficult to adjust to your new situation. Even when you feel positive and excited about your new independence, it’s normal to develop anxiety and/or depression as you get used to your new circumstances.
You’ll undoubtedly receive lots of handshakes and well-wishes for reaching your milestone, and with them is the inevitable question, “What are you going to do with your life?” This well-meaning question is loaded with expectations, often unrealistic, that can make you feel pressured and anxious.
Self-doubt often creeps in (or barges in with a battering ram). Expectations for success might come from friends, family, or others in your life, and they might also come from within. High expectations can be motivating, but they can bring a fear of failure and sense of shame at the thought of not meeting them.
Together, the uncertainties, sense of loss, and high expectations that are handed to you with your high school diploma can take a toll on your mental health. Symptoms of depression and/or anxiety might crash your graduation party.
Signs and Symptoms of Post-Graduate Depression & Anxiety
Bernard Luskin, an honored therapist who has served as CEO of numerous colleges and universities, refers to the turmoil that can accompany graduation as Post Commencement Stress Disorder, or PCSD.3
While this is not an official mental health diagnosis, the term does convey the very real collection of anxiety and depression symptoms new adults often experience as high school ends and a new life begins. These mental health challenges can range from mild experiences to more severe mental health disorders.
General signs (indicators that others can observe) and symptoms (things you feel and think) include:
- Sensing a lack of control over your future
- Feeling unsupported, alone as you venture ahead
- Perceiving yourself as incapable or as a failure
- Sleep problems
Luskin explains that these and other symptoms of depression and anxiety might occur just before or immediately after graduation, or they might begin a few months after graduation once the initial euphoria has worn off and you’re attempting to create new routines and settle successfully into your new stage of life.3
During this time of transition, you might experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both.
Depression vs. Sadness and a Complicated Transition
When you are feeling grief or sadness over the loss of the routine you’ve been used to and relationships that are changing or ending— including feeling homesick if you’ve moved out of your childhood home— it’s natural to feel down. Afterall, it’s a difficult transition. Many people feeling down or low in this way will be able to experience relief of these feelings after a short period of time (from a few hours to a few days) after having some time to reflect, talk about how they feel, or cry.
But when you’re feeling sad or down for more than a few days and are unable to find relief, your feelings may cross into depression. lf your depressed feelings are strong enough to complicate your life and rob you of the joys of your new independence, we may no longer be talking about challenges with your transition, but clinical depression.
- Depressed, low, sad mood most of every day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Appetite changes and/or unintended weight loss or gain (more than five percent of your body weight in a month)
- Sleep problems, either sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling agitated and keyed up or lethargic and slowed down (this is felt by you and observed by others)
- Fatigue, lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, and making decisions
- Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or self-harm
Anxiety vs. Transition Nerves
Graduating from high school, even though it is a positive accomplishment, is stressful. The uncertainties and expectations that the transition brings can cause excessive worries and fears that disrupt your life.
Experiencing “transition nerves,” or stress and worry caused by this major life change, is extremely common. Many people experience anxiety as they adjust to their new life. For some people, the anxiety is so intense or lasts for a long time. When this happens, it’s called an anxiety disorder.
Several types of anxiety disorders are described in the DSM-5.4 Those that are commonly associated with life transitions like high school graduations include generalized anxiety disorder and separation anxiety disorder.
- Excessive worries about several events or activities
- Difficulty controlling the worry
- Feeling restless, on edge
- Becoming fatigued easily
- Difficulty focusing or contracting or the mind going blank
- Difficulty sleeping
In separation anxiety disorder, symptoms are similar; however, the worry and fear is centered on being apart from loved ones or losing loved ones. This anxiety can cause nightmares or make it difficult for someone to be apart from their loved ones for even short periods of time.
Anxiety can also make you feel physically ill. It can cause physical symptoms such as digestive troubles, increased heart rate, breathing difficulties, sweating, trembling, and headaches.7
Whether or not a clinician has formally diagnosed you with a mental disorder, the symptoms of depression and anxiety can be miserable and disruptive with dire consequences. Both anxiety and depression can cause you to avoid people, places, and activities and thus miss positive new opportunities and friendships. They can make it difficult to live fully as an independent young adult. Happily, it is possible to cope with these conditions and move forward so they no longer interfere with your freedom.
Coping with Post-Graduate Depression & Anxiety
Dealing with depression and/or anxiety about high school graduation and moving into the next stage of your life can make this a very challenging time. The good news is that no matter how extreme they feel right now, they don’t have to be permanent. Because they’re natural reactions to a time of big changes, you can cope with them and move forward into an exciting new life.
Following 1,137 adolescents in Canada’s National Health Survey, reachers found that finding and maintaining social support and taking purposeful, meaningful action that includes physical activity are key factors in overcoming mental health challenges and stress during your transition into adulthood.13 You can use this knowledge to your advantage to take charge of your mental health and wellbeing as you move from high school into young adulthood.
Keep regular communication with high school friends to maintain the support network you’ve had until now. Even if you’re no longer in the same community, make it a point to text, chat with, or connect via video platforms a few times a week at first. Know that it’s normal for friendships to shift and change and you might find that your contact gradually decreases as you make new connections.
Form New Connections
Make yourself visible wherever you go. If you’re in a new job, socialize during breaks rather than avoiding new people. If you go to college, sit near others in class, and hang out in common areas. Get to know new people, and be active with those you like.
Maintain and Identify New Interests
While the extracurricular activities of high school have ended, your interests haven’t. There’s a new world of opportunities for you to be involved in. Join campus organizations, clubs, or intramural sports. Look into community centers and groups. Searching sites like MeetUp can help you find ways to stay active and follow your passions.
Forge Your Direction
Create a plan of action for the next six months of your life. Some experts recommend beginning this well before graduation, but it is never too late to start.3 Describe your goals, make a realistic budget, include action steps you need to take such as searching for an apartment, listing references, etc. Don’t forget to have your greater purpose in mind so you create meaning in your life. This is as important as the details.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying complete attention to each moment you’re in. Use your senses to focus on what is going on around you. This helps you pull away from anxious thoughts and your negative feelings to embrace the good in each moment.
Enlist the Help of a Therapist
Mental health therapy can help you process problems and plan for a positive future.
While anxiety and depression can zap your energy and make you want to avoid the world, staying active and connected will help you overcome these challenges. Dr. Luskin’s words are wise: “Generate some positive action and the positive feelings will follow.”3
Coping Strategies to Avoid
Anxiety and depression associated with high school graduation are disruptive to your life now and as you plan for your future. You might be willing to do almost anything to reduce them. While it’s healthy to want to do things to minimize your depression and anxiety symptoms, certain coping strategies end up increasing symptoms, further interfering in your healthy, independent, adult life, or both.
The following coping strategies are unhealthy ways to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety:
- Unhealthy eating habits: Overeating, eating a lot of unhealthy “comfort” foods instead of nutritious foods, or avoiding food altogether because of lack of appetite negatively affect your physical and mental health and make it harder to fight stress.8
- Substance use: Alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine, and illicit drugs.4
- Emotional spending: Spending a lot of money on things not related to your life goals can prevent you from living independently, going to college, or other things you will enjoy when your anxiety and depression are no longer interfering.9
- Procrastination and avoidance: Putting off or completely avoiding tasks like finding a job, applying for college, securing a place to live, filling out scholarship applications might help keep worries at bay, but in the long run they’ll create more anxiety and stress as you scramble to put these in place.10
- Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from friends and loved ones and isolating removes you from your support system, prevents you from enjoying activities, and can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.11
If you’re stuck in unhealthy coping strategies or if you find that even with your healthy coping skills you’re struggling to adjust to post-high school life, you might consider finding someone to talk to about this transition.
How Do I Find Someone to Talk to Through This Transition?
Support is crucial right now. Connecting with friends and family can be very helpful. Sometimes, though, casual support, while it’s caring and useful, isn’t enough. If you are feeling highly anxious or very depressed, are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, it is vital to reach out for professional help.
Here are some ways to find someone to talk to:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you are having thoughts of ending your life, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with someone on their website: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- Talk to a therapist in person: Talking face-to-face with a mental health professional can help you overcome anxiety and depression and learn tools to use as you transition into adulthood. Ask your doctor for a referral or find names of therapists in community centers, hospitals, or mental health organizations (these places often have information about low-cost options). You can also use an online therapist directory to find therapists near you.
- Try video or online therapy: Working with a therapist online can offer the same benefits as in-person therapy. Some people find it more convenient.
- Talk to a member of the clergy: Many spiritual and religious leaders offer counseling services. If you belong to a religious community, you might consider talking to someone there.
Therapy can be expensive, but it is often covered by insurance. Often, parents’ insurance companies cover children, teens, and young adults until age 25. When you call or go online for an appointment, present your insurance card and they’ll check for you to see if their services are covered.
You can also call the phone number or visit the website printed on the back of the card to see if you are covered and what mental health services are part of the plan. Some employers offer a few free therapy sessions to employees and their families. These are called employee assistance programs, or EAPs. Ask your parent or guardian if they have an EAP and how you can access it.
If you are already seeing a therapist and are leaving the state for college, ask him/her if they are licensed in the state you’re attending school. Even if they’re not, you might be able to continue services because of your status as a student. If you can’t, your therapist might be able to refer you to someone new.
It can sometimes require a bit of work upfront to find a therapist and sort out insurance, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a small investment in the quality of your life.
How Can Parents/Guardians Be Most Helpful?
Parents and guardians suffer along with their children and teens when they struggle. Your child may now be a young adult and leaving high school for college or work, but he or she still needs you.
Here are some ways to best support your young adult:
Remember Their Age
Ways you helped in the past might not be helpful now. They are moving into a new stage of independence and may resist your efforts to tell them what to do or do things for them.1 Make suggestions and then back away to give them time to decide what to do.
Listening to their thoughts and feelings is more helpful than finding solutions for them. Often, young adults need to verbalize their problems to a supportive parent or other adult. Feeling heard often reduces stress and lets them process their problems.
Remind Them of Who They Are
When engulfed in the thoughts and feelings of depression and anxiety, people of all ages often lose sight of themselves in the context of the bigger picture of their lives. Remind them of their strengths, brainstorm past challenges and how they overcame them, and help them explore their sense of purpose. Helping them identify things that are meaningful to them can lead them to action.
Helping your child with depression or anxiety is stressful. If you find that you are struggling with your own thoughts and emotions or feel frustrated and want to seek tools to help you help your son or daughter, working with a therapist might be very beneficial. Helping yourself will help you be there for your young adult, and in doing so, you’ll model positive, effective self-care behaviors.
High school graduation brings many changes. Some are exciting and positive, while others prove to be difficult. Struggling with anxiety or depression during this time of transition is natural. Know that it is temporary. You can take charge of your wellbeing and move forward with purpose and positivity.