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Graduation Depression - A Growing Dilemma?

            It’s a variation on a question I increasingly encounter from the younger generation with regard to what to do with their lives:

Dear Counselor Angell:

            I just graduated and I don’t know what to do with my life. Worrying over what to do next has me really depressed. I don’t know whether to continue my education or join the work force. I have even thought about the military. The prospect for a future looks bleak because so many jobs are dead end. You don’t get benefits and you don’t make enough to live on. They overwork you with unreasonable hours and then what you get for all that is you get fired when they cut back or outsource. How are you supposed to build a future on that? So far I have been keeping this problem to myself but when my family finds out, it will be a major drama. How can I get over being depressed about my future?
- Brett (name changed)


Dear Brett,

            I understand that you are saying your depression came as you were approaching graduation; not earlier, and your comments indicate frustration finding meaningful work that has decent working conditions. First, I would invite you to explore how depressed you are and to make sure it stems from thoughts of your future work and livelihood. Pay special attention to what you are thinking, what you are doing and your setting when you feel most depressed. Does it have you feeling down and listless, or is it so severe that it impacts your eating, sleeping and completely saps your motivation? This will help you decide whether career exploration and counseling, or more comprehensive counseling is indicated. If you are so depressed that you are self-destructive (including self-medicating), you should seek professional help immediately. Otherwise, there are some things you can do on your own.

            First, let me offer you a reality check. Over the years of your childhood and youth, the American workplace has become a hostile environment for many people in the workforce – and it has yet to turn itself around. Less than a generation ago, a person could expect to join a company, be paid reasonable wages, receive benefits, and eventually retire on a modest pension after a life of dedicated work for the company. As things stand currently, those days are gone. Corporate greed and worship of the bottom line have resulted in the working conditions to which you referred. Most of the young people I know are experiencing some degree of the same angst you describe: the sense that something is missing in what your life offers you – like you’ve missed the train of life, which is now going so fast, you don’t know how, where, or even whether, to try to jump on!

            Approaching your situation outside a counseling setting has limitations, because I cannot know your circumstances, but we can proceed on my impressions of what you are telling me. It appears you have not had any significant career counseling. Beyond that, though, I get the sense that you may be depressed in your search for meaning in life itself. Depression in circumstances like these is a normal response – even a healthy one, because it reveals the accuracy of your perceptions and your courage to see the truth. So, where can you begin to find a life?

            First, establish an internal locus of control as your basis of authority in life. We live in a highly dysfunctional society which fosters an external locus of control in people. Such people have been conditioned not to think for themselves, but to go to some “authority” for answers to all their questions. If your education has given you nothing else, it should have given you an internal locus of control, where you can trust yourself to find your own answers to life’s questions.

            Second, establish your own working answers to the ultimate questions of your life. Ultimate questions are the deep spiritual ones like, “Who am I – really – not defined by my labels, descriptions and by what I do, but by my essence?” “Is there a deeper Source behind my existence than the appearance of everyday random events?” “Does my existence matter?” This is the most important quest of your life, because how we answer our ultimate questions determines how we live our whole lives. Have the courage to get in touch with your spiritual yearning, then follow the spiritual disciplines that work for you, such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading scriptures and spiritual material, along with spending time in nature and man-made sanctuaries. Don’t let anybody squelch your quest through invoking fear in you by demanding that you follow their answers to their ultimate questions. More than anything, you are a creature of Spirit and you cannot fail to find your way when you are led by the Source of that still, small voice within.

            Third, through finding meaningful answers to your ultimate questions, you will come to deeper answers about yourself – including the interests and activities that are most meaningful to you. The philosopher, Joseph Campbell, used to say, “Follow your bliss,” as the pathway to a fulfilling career. So many people live their lives mostly waiting for that 3:30 or five o’clock hour. What excites you the most, and where does it exist in the world of work?

            Fourth, you will determine how practical reality meets up with your most meaningful interests. How much education or other investment does your field of interest require, and do you have the resources, aptitude and drive to achieve the work that interests you? Then, what is the demand for your proposed discipline in the real world and what are the working conditions and monetary rewards? You can get answers to these and more questions by taking John Holland’s Self-Directed Search, online or your local college, then going online to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. To escape corporate bonds, you may decide to go into business for yourself.

            All these things, taken together, will lead you to right livelihood, where your spiritual foundation, your ethics, your interests and your talents will come together with your education and training to allow you to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

            And, if this sounds too simple and rosy, let me be first to acknowledge that your efforts may not lead to your expectations. Your career field may change and leave you high and dry. Working conditions may demand that you sacrifice family life for company profit. Other disciplines or businesses may crowd you out of the picture, or injuries may incapacitate you. Yes, your work may even be lost when they cut back or outsource. This is why building your life on the things that matter most must be your first priority.

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            Following this course, you will have established your life on a solid spiritual foundation. Family and friends will not be compromised for compensation and promotion. Having enough, not more, will mean more than power and material gain.

            We are a society that defines who we are by what we do. Nonsense. Character trumps occupation and social standing. No honest work can diminish us and every labor, however humble, is a contribution. Find out who you are and build what you do into that. Offer your labor honorably, with a sincere intent to contribute, and no layoff or pitfall will be able to take away what you have to offer the world. There is no path through life without suffering and while our life’s work may be a calling, it may also be the caldron that tempers us with our finest spiritual lessons.

            For the time being, our society seems to have forgotten many of these lessons, judging by the conduct of many of our leaders in business and government. Because I believe in humanity and the spirit in humanity, I believe we are about to enter an era of profound positive change. It will be preceded by even more shocking revelations and shakeups before things begin to get better – but we must all do the parts we are called to do in making a better world. You, too, will have a part in this.

            Finally, in order to address your considerations about joining the military, I am going to take a completely different approach. I choose to take off my counselor hat and don the hat of a Vietnam Veteran patriot, raised in a military family, and the hat of a father.

            As in Vietnam, we are now in an unpopular war. No war, initiated on the basis of deception, can end honorably for the deceiver. In spite of the slogan, “Support Our Troops,” the evidence is to the contrary. If you decide to join the military, there is a good chance you will become part of this war effort. George Washington said, “A nation will be judged by the way it treats its veterans.” From faulty uniforms and vehicles to multiple tours under “stop loss” orders, our active duty troops are not even being supported – let alone the veterans! Before seriously considering enlisting, consider reading David Swanson’s 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military. Joining under current circumstances will subject you to many of the ten consequences Swanson cites in his book.

            Further, military service in this era will likely impact you in a way that will impair or ruin the rest of your life and you can expect to return to a nation that is generally apathetic about your sacrifices, indifferent about your post-service needs and callous with respect to your losses. Unless things change, you may pay the rest of your life for a decision made in your youth and go to your grave never having achieved your potential, because you will have been denied the opportunities and breaks given to the children of those who duped you and sent you off to war in the first place. It sickens me to have to say this, but I must, for I know these things are true. I pray for the day when this country will return to a place of honor in the eyes of the world and where our military finest are no longer pawns in the hands of those ignorant or heedless of the atrocity of war.

Granville Angell © 6/2006

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience, invites readers to submit questions for his column to his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com . He may be reached at his private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services by emailing angell(at)transitions-counseling.com or calling 704-276-1164.

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