For Saad Khan, the transition from college to career has been one of benefits and challenges.
On one hand, the December 2021 Virginia Tech graduate now has clearer boundaries for his time than he did during college. But on the other hand, he no longer benefits from the social nature of the university environment.
“So I anticipate that for a lot of folks, navigating their social well-being after college might be difficult,” said Khan, who earned a degree in clinical neuroscience and is now a mental health intern with Hokie Wellness. “For me, that means having to become more intentional about my social experiences. Curating them rather than just walking into them.”
Khan is in good company when feeling the challenges of transitioning from Virginia Tech into the working world, according to university mental health professionals. Adjusting to new social settings, new financial considerations, and new sets of available wellness resources can take a toll.
“Moving to a new place, a new environment with new people, might challenge the ways we typically navigate our mental and social wellness,” said Swathi Prabhu, assistant director for mental health and bystander initiatives for Hokie Wellness.
Erica Coates, coordinator for diversity and inclusion and staff counselor at Cook Counseling Center, said such struggles are very normal and likely similar to the challenges many Hokies faced when they first arrived at the university.
“The good news is college students have typically weathered numerous transitions by this stage of their lives, so they can do it again,” Coates said. “And that can feel good to remember.”
Coates and Prabhu shared a variety of insights related to mental health and well-being during the months and years that follow graduation. For current students, Virginia Tech's mental health campaign, #VTBetterTogether, offers a variety of programming, much of which can be access on the revamped Well-Being at Virginia Tech webpage.
What are some common issues recent graduates face?
Prabhu: “Finding their people and a sense purpose can be a struggle. A lot of data suggests that if you’ve worked some place less than six months, you are likely to experience some pretty significant loneliness … and having those meaningful relationships are really important especially during times of transition.”
Coates: “I often see this really intense pressure to see life as this trajectory. That I will take this step, then this step, and my life will continue on this trajectory. It can be pretty stressful for recent grads to not have another step in front of them. To realize 'Oh, this is it? This is the thing?' But you know, I try to remind them, it’s also awesome to not have so many fixed parameters. Enjoy the freedom around then rather than fearing it.”
What are some practical steps individuals can take to bolster their mental well-being?
Coates: “A wellness practice I would highly recommend is journaling. What we know from the science is journaling takes our emotional centers of the brain and our more rational centers and putting pen to paper gets new connectively between them occurring. You can also read back what you wrote and write a second entry. It’s almost like pretending to be a friend to yourself during a hard time.”
Prabhu: “Taking time for intentional reflection. Reflect on the people who make up your support system. Who are you with when you feel the most yourself and what feelings do they leave you with? Figuring out what we enjoy about our current relationships is the foundation for building new ones. Also, reflect on your sense of purpose and your role as a future professional. What knowledge have you gained this year and what skills have you grown in? What have you accomplished that felt so scary just a year ago? What are you most proud of?”
What are some signs that it might be time to seek support?
Prabhu: “Most of it is figuring out the impact of what you’re going through is having on your daily functioning. How are the emotions you’re experiencing and the behaviors you’re using to cope with it impacting your ability to show up in your life, to be present at work, and to develop relationships with others? And then, asking, do I feel I have the skills and resources to cope effectively? For all of us, the level of distress is going to outweigh the coping skills we have at some point in our lives. So, when we feel like we’ve been using the resources and skills we have and it’s just not working, then it might be time to reach out to others.”
Coates: “We think of well-being like a pie chart of different elements – physical health, emotion and mental health, social health and well-being, and financial well-being. If one of those domains is really struggling so much that the others are starting to be impacted - you’re sleeping too little or too much, you’re eating too little or too much, you’re socializing too little or too much – that can be a sign maybe it’s time to reach out for help. Also, if a behavior has become a repeated pattern where you can’t access your loved ones as much as you like, such as anxiety is rippling out into other domains of life, those are also some ways to know. You should expect struggle, but on the other hand, if you really are feeling stuck where some of the strategies that we know aren’t helping, that’s the time to seek help.”
What are some ways for a person to start the process of getting help?
Coates: “Open Path Collective is a great resource. It is a collection of therapists who have decided they want to work with people who can’t pay or don’t have insurance. Another thing some folks might not know is that almost all counties in the U.S. have a domestic violence agency and a sexual trauma center, and if you’ve been impacted at all in your life by either of those things, there’s free therapy available. It may not be that recovery from abuse is your top priority, but they still can see you if you’re a primary victim or a secondary victim of those things.”
Prabhu: “The first step is often just talking to someone you trust – a friend, family member or partner – about your experience. That won’t necessarily ‘resolve’ everything, but it’s a good first step because having supportive interactions with others is what helps us navigate a multitude of stressors. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that our healing doesn’t solely happen in a therapy session, so it’s important to tap into the other meaningful things in our lives, such as hobbies, athletic teams, faith groups, etc. that help us feel supported.”
A few other quick tips from both professionals:
- Check with your employer to see if an Employee Assistance Program is available. Such programs can often provide guidance on locating support, as well as an allowance of free counseling visits.
- Find a therapist who is affirming of and has experience working with people who identify in a similar way to yourself. Navigating insurance can also be a challenge, so communicate with both your insurance provider and service provider to be aware of what your insurance will cover and which provider will accept it.
Helpful resources to consider:
- Virginia Tech’s Community Provider Database offers a variety of ways to search including by area of expertise and insurance provided.
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective can help location providers committed to work with individuals who have financial constraints.
- Human Rights Campaign Foundation has created a guide for helping individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community and/or marginalized racial or cultural groups find affirming and culturally responsive care.