Making the transition from third level education to the “real world” has always been a challenge for graduates, but never more so than now as they grapple with the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions on normal life that followed it.
Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and mental health supports are all key to helping graduates develop resilience, manage stress, and maintain overall wellbeing, according to Treasa Fox, head of student counselling at TUS Midlands Student Counselling Service.
“We know a lot of students and young people have experienced high degrees of isolation because of the pandemic and the restrictions,” she says. “We saw that continue on past those restrictions.
“We know there is a vast cohort of people who don’t necessarily need to come to counselling services, but they are experiencing difficulties.
“They’re experiencing transition challenges, whether that be transitioning into college or those who have been maybe cossetted in university life for a period of time and are now looking at going out into a world where there a lot of challenges.
“There is a cost of living crisis, a shortage of accommodation, and a climate crisis. Students are dealing with all that and have to then go out and negotiate getting a job. They may feel very intimidated or fearful because it is unknown.”
Many companies and workplaces will offer support structures in these areas and you should not be shy about making enquiries and seeking them out – but there are also supports out there for students and those on the verge of transitioning out of the education sphere.
Ben Locke is chief clinical officer of Togetherall, which launched in Ireland last year and provides clinically moderated peer-to-peer support on a global scale.
Locke says the platform provides a venue for people to seek and receive support from peers on all mental health concerns. It then has clinical moderators at the backend “to make sure people are safe”.
“Life’s transitions are the inflection points where people oftentimes experience the most challenges, but they are also shared challenges,” he says. “In Higher Education, there is this constant challenge around demand exceeding supply.
“Where we have kind of arrived at today is this drumbeat that if you are in distress, you should go to see a professional for support. That’s currently not tenable for everyone as there are not enough services.
“What we try to do is expand the thinking around the normality of struggling in life. That when you struggle, you are part of the human race – you’re part of everybody who is struggling.”
Locke says a key thing to remember at junctures like this in life is to be intentional in your actions.
“When I think about graduates, I think about my own years in college and how I had kind of an automatic social life,” he says. “I could just go next door, and boom, I had something to do.
“When you go out into the world post-university, there has to be an intentionality about almost everything you do, and that includes your wellness and your mental health.
“Just like you need to be intentional about finding a job and finding a place to live, you need to be intentional about noticing if you are experiencing distress and reaching out to your peers or connecting with services that are out there.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t worry about being judged if you are experiencing difficulties – even really serious difficulties – sharing those with friends and the community, and seeking those supports is important.
“Beyond that is being intentional about all the coping skills that come with being a healthy person. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating right? Are you getting enough exercise? Do you have social time that you planned in? And moderation in all things.”
Locke adds that it is important not to wait for things to feel like a crisis before you acknowledge them or act up on them. “For example, if you have trouble sleeping for a week, don’t let it go on beyond that,” he says.
“Contact your friends and family, or your general practitioner. Talk with other peers you have and say, ‘I’m having this problem. What have you done? What should I do?’ You can apply that to almost any kind of struggle or suffering.”
Joseph Morning, mental health editor with youth information website Spunout, agrees that the transition from third level education to the next phase of life – whatever that might be – is a time to pay particular attention to your mental health.
“Graduating from college is a huge achievement,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate and take stock of how far you’ve come, but a lot of people also find themselves wondering, what’s next?
“When you graduate, a lot of changes happen in your life all at once. You can be entering the world of work, maybe for the first time. You might be moving back in with your family or moving into a place of your own. Your daily routine changes and your social life can change too.
“That’s a lot of change all at once, and while these changes can be positive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging and stressful too. The current cost of living and the housing crisis can really add to this uncertainty. All of this can take its toll on your mental health.”
All that being said, Morning says there is help and support out there, as long as you know where to look, and take the time to look after yourself.
“The good news is, as humans, we’re pretty good at adapting to change and managing pressure,” he says. “It just takes some time. My advice to young graduates would be to be patient and kind with yourself as you’re navigating these next steps.
“Recognise that what you’re going through is new for you and can be stressful, and take what you need to manage that stress. If you find talking about it helpful, talk to someone you trust. Take breaks when you need them. Ask questions if you’re unsure of something.
“Don’t forget to carve out time to do things you enjoy. If you notice your mental health dipping and you think you could benefit from some extra support, that’s okay too. There are a lot of mental health support options out there.”
Sigmar Recruitment chief executive Frank Farrelly believes managing expectations around new jobs and new phases of life is a central plank when it comes to maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing.
“Giving graduates a realistic experience of the work environment should be an eight week part of every third level qualification,” he says.
“The positive veneer painted by universities of how good candidates are is understandable, but it can increase the shock for graduates when they enter the workforce.
“Longer work placements would normalise expectations earlier and generate new coping skills earlier. It would also benefit those who like to see the real-world impact of what they do.”
Prof Michelle Millar is the programme director of Designing Futures at the University of Galway, which has a mandate to “empower, educate and support students to lead better lives and succeed in the complex world we live in”.
“Designing Futures focuses on supporting the entire student experience,” says Millar. “The initiative is designed to empower, educate and support students to lead better lives and succeed in the complex world we live in.”
The programme promotes emotional intelligence and wellbeing in a number of ways.
Firstly, students can access a student success coach to help personalise their pathway through university, through one-on-one or group sessions or by participating in the Designing Your Life Module.
“These supports build directly on a student’s sense of identity, wellbeing and agency,” Millar says.
Students can also access new modules including Sástacht Saoil: Routes to Wellbeing. In this module students learn about the interconnectedness of physical, social and psychological aspects of well-being.
“They learn key psychological wellbeing topics including building healthy relationships, managing stress, and building resilience,” she adds.