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The education-to-employment transition: prioritising your mental health

Geoff McDonald: Co-Founder of Minds@Work and Mental Health Campaigner.

Transitions: An Introduction

During my journey to help organisations address the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, it has struck me how so many cases of struggling mental health are associated with a transition in people’s lives. It is therefore vital that we continue to raise awareness of the strain that is put on our mental wellbeing during these significant transitional phases.

We all must  be more alert to the potential challenges we may face during these significant changes in our lives. If we are better prepared, more self-aware and the correct support mechanisms are in place, we will be better equipped to prevent the onset of ill mental health altogether. Whilst organisations should take the brunt of the responsibility here, becoming more aware as individuals of the changes that are occuring in our lives will undoubtedly help us reduce the likelihood of mental health breakdowns.

No matter of your age, change can be a frightening and daunting thing. In any instance, especially if multiple changes are coinciding, it is easy to become overwhelmed to a point which can lead to the deterioration of one’s own mental health. Plato once said “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, which I think remains as pertinent as ever to this day.

Prioritising Mental Health During a Transition

Going from junior to senior school, from school to university, from university into that first job, and from functional head in a business to general manager… These are all life changing transitions that we experience as we grow and excel in life. Though, it is often during these changes that our mental health can suffer. We must get better in supporting others through the changes and transitions in their lives, and become more aware of the fragility of the mind during these periods.

Take leaving university for example, the number of changes that occur in your life as you leave is unprecedented. More often than not, the city you live in will change, the people you live with will not be the same, and you will get used to a new structure of your daily life. To add to this, there is an immense perceived pressure to transition swiftly into a new era of your life and begin work.

The combination of these factors puts enormous strain on the mind and we must be aware of the potential risks to our mental wellbeing that this time period poses. Ensuring that our mental health is at the forefront of our awareness during these times is pivotal in keeping us healthy. Fortunately, there are support options available, such as the Thriving From The Start network, which focuses primarily on this key transitional phase.

Anastasia Vinnikova: Wellbeing Lead at The Bank of England & Steering Committee member of the CMHA’s Thriving from the Start Network

The Education to Employment Transition

The transition between education and employment is particularly difficult, and can have a significant impact on mental health. In 2018, theCity Mental Health Alliance found that 69% of students would not describe themselves as mentally healthy, and 64% were concerned about how their mental health may impact their chances of securing a first job upon completion of studies. There are many contributing factors as to why this is a difficult time, and can vary from individual to individual depending on their unique circumstances. However, some of the key reasons can include:

The nature of change

Change itself can be a very scary thing. University is an important experience which spans many years, and the prospect of having to leave the freedom and independence of study for the (perceived) rigidity of working life can be very overwhelming

Expectations of perfection

The graduate job market is very challenging at the moment, and increasingly there is a perceived expectation that students should be able to secure the perfect job immediately upon completion of their degree. Pressure from institutions who are ranked on the ‘employability’ of their students and cultures amongst course-mates where employment prospects are compared can create a toxic need for an unattainable level of perfection.

Leaving support networks

Not only can it be a shorter waiting time to access formal university wellbeing support, such as counselling, students are also surrounded by informal support networks in their peers and friends. The end of university signifies a time when people return back to their hometowns, or move on to follow employment prospects, and access to both formal and informal support networks to which they are accustomed can be lost.

Although easier said than done, it is important during this transition to remember that comparing ourselves to others can be a toxic and unproductive exercise. While it may seem that everyone knows what they would like to do with their career, and that many peers are receiving numerous job offers, the reality is that more likely than not you are all in the same boat.

It is also important to consider how to keep support systems running. For example, if you are receiving counselling from your university, it would be beneficial to speak with the counsellor for how to transition into therapy wherever you will be living after your studies. Equally, it is putting processes in place to stay in contact with friends and peers who may not be in the usual close proximity to you once your studies finish.

Lastly, more and more organisations dedicate themselves to ensuring they create an inclusive working culture which prioritises the wellbeing of their employees. When researching prospective employers, as well as the usual things we may look for (such as career progression, benefits and rewards, office location etc.) consider whether you can find signs of tangible efforts to provide mental health support for their staff.

Being Alert to a Breakdown

Unfortunately, there is no easy checklist for identifying whether someone is struggling with their mental health. The manifestations of an issue with psychological wellbeing can be both emotional and physical, and will vary greatly from person to person. The main thing is spotting a change in behaviour. This may mean that someone who is usually very positive, becomes full of anger, or someone who usually sleeps very regularly begins to over-sleep, it can even be that someone who usually does not care very much about their appearance begins to focus on their self-image more than they typically would. However, to be able to spot a change in someone we have to keep in regular contact.

The power of checking-in with someone is immense if you are keen to keep a finger on the pulse of the mental wellbeing of those around you. It can be very scary to open up to someone about how you are feeling, so the question of ‘how are things?’ can not just signify to the person that you are interested in how they are feeling, but also give you an opportunity to spot any changes in their behaviour or demeanour. An important thing to remember is that people are unlikely to answer honestly the first time. So (gently) ask twice if you think you’re not getting a true response.

Finding Support

Fortunately, there are many fantastic organisations which can support young people’s mental health as they transition into employment – charities like Young Minds and Student Minds offer great services and resources particularly during education. Others like the City Mental Health Alliance, and in particular their early careers specific network, Thriving from the Start, look at bridging the gap and ensuring no one falls through the cracks by providing awareness raising, profiling mentally healthy workplace behaviours, and providing a community where young people can share their mental health experiences.

By Geoff McDonald and Anastasia Vinnikova

About the Authors

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