Fear, Anxiety, Post-Grad Depression: What the New Graduates of the Class of COVID-19 are Inheriting


Fear, Anxiety, Post-Grad Depression: What the New Graduates of the Class of COVID-19 are Inheriting

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Here’s an idea for a coming-of-age novel. It opens in medias res: Our protagonist is a graduate with a well-cushioned resume, a degree or two, who stepped outside the hallowed halls of school quite recently. They are fired with a passion to build on that education, but anxiety takes point on every alternate page, searing through their dreams. This constant state of flux then becomes the prologue and epilogue to a book rife with uncertainty. Our graduate has come of age in this age, in the era of a pandemic, where disillusionment with the world is swiftly translating into an emotional crisis.

If stories pick us, then this one picked me and the class of 2020, who are probably nodding along grimly behind their masks. Until a few months ago, none of us could have anticipated that the world would be spinning so fast – we were just a happy bunch, whose big worry in life was whether we’d be able to binge-watch Euphoria on the night before an exam. And now, we have all stepped into a Covid-afflicted world, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but unsure of how to put one step ahead of the next. For new graduates, our relationship with reality has turned from hopeful to disappointing in a matter of weeks.

As I write this, almost 36 million Indians find themselves in the same position, armed with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. That’s 36 million people entering the workforce. Some might be struggling to get the career they hoped would fall in their laps after graduation. Many find themselves stuck in jobs they aren’t suited to or had to settle for. Rejection piles on like a Draw Four card. Several of us have no option but to hustle, which has become a necessity because higher education proves to be a drain on money, resources… and mental health.

We aren’t alone, however: Post-graduation depression has always been a thing. A medical journal explains how depression in young adults occurs often due to the pressure to get a job right away or the sadness of leaving college and peers behind. Why then, almost 40 per cent of graduates described themselves as feeling “socially isolated” and 49 per cent said their mental wellbeing declined after school.

It’s the awkward period, the uncomfortable spot that has everyone asking “what’s next”.

Post-graduate depression

It’s the awkward period, the uncomfortable spot that has everyone asking “what’s next”. Which also means I find myself increasingly playing fast and loose with the truth – the range is as diverse as “exploring opportunities” to “working on some things”, when the truth is, I’m just waiting. Waiting for things to trigger the professional curve in motion, to work towards the fabled purpose everyone hopes for themselves.

The most-used application on my phone is LinkedIn, which on further inspection would reveal scores of messages sent to industry professionals and notifications set to job alerts. A close second is the mailbox that is refreshed mercilessly. Every time my phone buzzes, I am filled with anticipation, wondering if it is a reply from one of the 60+ places I’ve sent applications to. The spectrum of normalcy is this: Good days are when I hear back from workplaces, even crafty rejections letting me know I’m great, but one among a dozen reasons why I won’t be hired. Bad days are steeped in silence. Bad days are when I fixate on others’ achievements. Bad days are reading news of a spiralling economy and soaring unemployment.

In a recent scrolling adventure, I came across a New York Times cartoon: a coffee cup with the words “anguish”, “dread”, and “anxiety” ticked off along with a dash of extra foam. It might as well have had the names of Class of 2020 on it.

I am constantly thinking about my days at the university. To borrow from one Andrew Bernard of The Office, I wish there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them. I’d take the drudgery of deadlines, dozing through morning classes, a looming reading list over the anxiety of today. The loss of routine and uncertainty make the transition into the “real world” acutely jarring. But then again, nothing about this real world feels normal. We aren’t just grieving the future, but also the loss of the present.

I’d unwittingly reduced myself to a CV and forgotten that I was a human being with complex desires and needs.

The new normal is terrible 

The door to education is closed, and the door to employment is stubbornly sealed. Friends in different fields seem to be enduring a similar relationship of disdain with their phones. Some have been told to abandon the job hunt altogether. Secondly, whatever little roles remain require experience or calibre of a high level. Besides, with so many people losing their jobs and competing for the same positions, it would be impossible employers to pick someone with less experience. All that leaves us with are unpaid internships that we are exhausted of serially chasing.

My value, as a fresh graduate, hasn’t budged over the years – the only difference is that now it comes addled with debt and disappointment. Wasn’t this emotional, fiscal, and intellectual investment supposed to amount to something? If self-worth were a tangible entity, it would be in tatters right now.

Of course, it is a great privilege to be able to graduate in the midst of the pandemic or to be able to graduate at all. But the cap that might have been thrown up in ecstasy by class of 2020, would have to be pulled down by the gravity of sobering expectations. Still, our darkest days carry stray epiphanies.

For one, with all the dread and anxiety, I’d unwittingly reduced myself to a CV and forgotten that I was a human being with complex desires and needs. And what was chaos, within and outside, until a few weeks ago, turned into an opportunity to balance myself out – a real luxury, when I look at the world around me.

Eventually, the impulse to bask in self-pity has run out. It feels okay to not know what I was doing, just like it feels okay to know I’ll find my footing soon. The class of 2020 will focus on the work: on ourselves, our emotional growth, our lives. And the final question: Where do you see yourself in five years?