It’s the most gloomy time of year (yesterday especially, if you go in for the whole “blue Monday” thing) and, according to the Prince’s Trust, nearly half of unemployed young people are depressed.
Whether the job hunt is getting you down, or you’re worried it might be something more serious, we’ve got some advice from Professor Edward Watkins, of the University of Exeter’s Clinical psychology department (he also runs the Mood Disorder Centre and is an all-round great guy) as well as stories and advice from two recent graduates who have struggled with unemployment and depression.
Firstly, Professor Watkins stresses that it’s natural to be anxious when unemployed, because it isn’t as simple as “I don’t have a job”. Whether you’re living at home having just graduated, or struggling with rent, you’re dealing with what he terms a loss of identity or expectation: “If the expectation is that you’re going to graduate and get a job, and this doesn’t happen, it can be upsetting. It's important to realise it's normal to feel down about this, and then to take measures to prevent your behaviour from spiralling.”
Unemployed and feeling down?
A handful of tactics from Prof. Watkins:
Normalising: a posh word for perspective, really. “If you want to get a job, and you can't get a job, that's not a great situation. Recognise that the situation is bad and that it's not about you - your reaction is normal.”
Be specific: keep focused as opposed to generalising. "If you took a test and failed, you could think 'Maybe I can't do anything, maybe I'm generally stupid, this is going to keep happening to me'," says Watkins, "instead of just feeling bad about the test." Suddenly, you've changed the focus of your negativity - try identifying specifically what's wrong instead of making the issue unnecessarily broad.
Yes, applying for jobs is almost a job in itself, but keep doing the fun stuff too! “People, when going through a rough time, have a tendency to focus on what they feel like they have to do, and the things that make them actually happy fall by the wayside. Things like watching a film, reading a book, seeing friends, dancing.”
Talk to a friend: yawn, everyone says this, but having someone to chat to about how you’re feeling can really give you some perspective. Also, there’s nothing to be gained by withdrawing into yourself: “It’s the worst thing you can do,” says Professor Watkins. “It’ll just magnify feelings of isolation.”
Keep active: “Routine is really important,” says Professor Watkins. “If you find your routine has changed, try and get back to what you were doing before. Active doesn’t just mean physically, but socially too.” Obviously, if you’re usually a gym bunny, then try and keep up some sort of physical activity - even if it’s less than normal, it’ll still help.
How to tell when it's more than 'just being sad'
You’ve tried the above and, to put it frankly, it’s not working. If nothing’s improving, and you can identify with the below, it may be time to get some help:
1.Feelings of guilt
2.Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
3.Withdrawing from others
4.Feelings of hopelessness and suicide
5.Inability to get out of bed
6.Weight loss or gain
7.Everything feels more difficult due to lack of energy
What to do
As tough as it is, there are many ways to help you feel better.
Talk to a professional about how you feel. Professor Watkins says your GP is the best port of call and that you should go to them if your mood isn't improving. Whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy, medication, counselling or more specific methods of treatment, they should be able to help. There are some links in the last paragraph that can also help, and Watkins highly recommends Overcoming Depression by Paul Gilbert.
Also, don’t sit in your bedroom. “Shutting yourself away in your own head is the worst thing you can do,” says Professor Watkins, “it’s crucial to stay connected to the world, and overthinking things can lead to overwhelmingly negative thoughts. Whether this is with other people, or just with the world via the internet - always stay involved in what’s going on. Don't withdraw into your own head."
Try to break down the tasks you have to achieve; setting yourself even the smallest goals is a step towards breaking the spiral. “There are signs that someone is slipping into a more clinical depression,” Professor Watkins says, “but the problem is that they may be engaging in behaviour that doesn’t help their circumstances [e.g. staying in bed all day instead of applying for jobs] so the problem doesn’t lift, and the depression gets worse as the problem remains.” Don’t expect miraculous results immediately, but breaking it all down (from showering to going to a particular café with wifi to replying to an email) will help you get stuff done, while making it less scary.
Two readers wrote to us about their experiences with job-hunting and depression
Rochelle: “I felt worthless and like I was never going to succeed. What was the point? I stopped even looking at jobs.”
"I graduated with a 2:1 in Journalism from a great university last September, and couldn’t have been happier! It was the proudest I’d ever been and I was more than ready to enter the working world. I knew it would be hard but luckily landed a couple of internships almost immediately. However, when they had finished it was like nobody else wanted me and my outlook turned upside-down.
I would work on my CV daily, send it out to anyone who would listen but after a while it became disheartening. What was I doing wrong? I began to believe that I should be a high-flying journalist already and that the reason people didn’t want me was because I just wasn’t good enough. I felt useless and just gave up. My can-do attitude had gone, I felt worthless and like I would never succeed. What was the point? I stopped even looking at jobs.
I became paranoid in social situations and anxiety got the better of me. What if someone asks what I’m doing now? I’m doing nothing! They'll judge me! This was when I knew that my unemployment was having an impact on my mental health.
So I took myself to the doctor, one who had known me for years. I told her I couldn’t succeed due to my mood and my mood was due to the fact I could not succeed. Depression was the diagnosis and, for me, talking was the answer.
I spoke to a local mental health programme that supports people who are struggling with depression, anxiety and stress. Releasing those insecurities and talking through what you are feeling is a great way to get back on your feet.
For anyone who is feeling the strain of graduate pressure from experience my answer is simple. TALK to someone! Once you start to realise you’re not alone, life becomes a lot easier. We will all get there eventually; it just takes a bit of time and a lot of work!
I won’t say I feel back to normal: when you lose yourself, it takes time to return. But what I do know is one day I will be myself again and that I will reach my goals. That’s a fact!"
Lucy: “I realised unemployment was greatly impacting my moods and it was making me depressed.”
"I'm someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety and a number of things since a young age. I am now 23 and have been looking for work for a while. I moved to the UK and the Isle of Wight from Australia last April and have been applying for every job going with the hope they will give me a chance. I have received the dreaded rejection call/email from them all, and constant negative feedback is not good for anyone. You start to feel you’re not good enough, that you’re worthless and then there’s a downward spiral. It does not get better from there.
Around June 2012 I realised unemployment was greatly impacting my moods and it was making me depressed. I became physically ill - think of having a nasty flu, but without the runny nose. Constant lethargy, joint aches, headaches, nausea. Your mental health directly affects your physical health.
I do feel better now, slightly. I still feel down about rejection from potential employers but I have adopted a new outlook on life. I try to look for the positive instead of the negative. In some cases that is very easy, in some it's not. What most people do not understand is most unemployed people are dying for work, but it’s just not available.
I’d advise anyone struggling to seek help from their GP or local mental health services. Form a personal mantra: "I can do this, I have worth, I must keep trying". And apply for anything, even if you think it's beneath you - another opportunity may arise out of it."
So keep going, keep your chin up and don't let the bastards grind you down: the fact you're unemployed is not your fault. It's a difficult time and young people are struggling - but there are places you can get help and people that will listen. Aside from friends, family, your local GP and trained professionals, The Help Guide has some good practical advice. Also, take a look at Professor Watkins' Mood Disorder Clinic for both advice and useful resources, and The Samaritans are always there in times of crisis.