Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

Building relationships that work when depressed

Everyone we interviewed said that being less alone was an important part of dealing with depression. As Joey described it, “probably the healthiest thing going on for me right now is just making sure that I have ample social connections.” This section focuses on the many roles relationships played for people we interviewed as they strove to cope with and heal from depression by being less alone. (To learn more about the toll depression can take on relationships, see ‘Depression and relationships’.)

For most people, “ample social connections” referred less to a certain number of relationships and more to a mix that in combination provides understanding, compassion, and support. People described different views of what that ideal mix is and different strategies for creating it – but all viewed relationships as a vital resource that merits careful nurturance. As Marty put it, “you’re not alone…. There’s help for everybody out there, you just have to put in the effort.”
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Relationships can change

Many people said important relationships in their lives had changed for the better over time, either naturally or as the result of their own concerted action. Several people spoke about connecting with parents after lengthy periods of separation -- for example, Sierra Rose found that her mother was there for her during a crisis in a way that created “a turning point” in a historically difficult relationship. Sam said despite differences with his parents, he has been “taking steps to mend our relationship… and that they have reciprocated has been a huge relief.” Sophie described a long-standing friendship that “started from the bottom” and continued to stretch as they both grew up.
Setting realistic expectations

People described many kinds of relationships that can be gratifying and helpful -- but only if they are approached with realistic expectations. As Sophie put it, what is key is “knowing who you can go to and who is willing to help when you have problems.” Teddy emphasized the importance of knowing who to trust, saying “when I really get like a hand to… be given out I’ll take that hand and I won’t, I won’t let go. Because there have been times when I have grabbed the wrong hand and it’s gotten me worse.” Pete spoke, with a spark of humor, about looking for “just a regular person” he can talk to -- someone who can “let me be upset and let me go through the pain I have and let me just be there one day at a time. A person that brings sushi.”
Many of the people we interviewed described the need to be careful about expecting true understanding of depression from friends and relatives -- particularly those who have not themselves experienced it. Mara described how frustrating it can be when expectations on either side are unrealistic, saying “you’ll be revealing something to a friend you think is getting closer and you disclose something and they go, ‘Oh, I totally get were you’re coming from.’ And you want to go ‘No you have no idea what I’m going through you, you live a completely different life and… chances are you have no idea what I am feeling.’” In order to avoid this disappointment, a number of people learned it was most realistic to seek real understanding from just one or two select people and to expect empathy rather than understanding from most. Sally, for example, says she doesn’t expect her boyfriend to understand: she just appreciates when he will “just lay there with me or hug me or something like that. Just enough to be present but not overbearing.”
On-line communities

Many of the young adults we spoke to described expanding their social networks on line – and many found these web-based connections valuable both for gathering information about depression and for creating “virtual communities”. Some people successfully connected with peers who were experiencing depression in combination with other diagnoses or conditions. Web-based relationships allowed for a greater sense of control: as Shayne observed “you can get really awkward when you’re depressed; when people ask you how you’re doing, you just start crying …. When I was really awkward, I had online support.”
Others had less positive experiences. Nadine, for example, worried that on-line chats conveyed “so much incorrect information that it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between what is true about depression and what is not.” Jason was so skeptical that he never even tried web-based forums, anticipating that on-line interactions would lack seriousness, carry emotional risks, and feel too “transient.”

Candor, acceptance and realistic perspectives

The capacity to be completely open and honest about depression and “get rid of masks that have been unhealthy” was described as important by a number of people we interviewed. Several people found that once the removed their own masks, others removed their too. Violet said some of her friends also have depression, which she “didn’t know until I came out and said it and they were like “really you do,” like “I’ve been on Prozac for this many years,” and I was like “really” you know just to know that they had struggled and I didn’t even know it.” Joey had a similar experience, noting that when he said he was taking medication for depression lots of other people would say “oh yeah, me too!” Some people talked about the limitations of sharing feelings and experiences with other people.
For some, feeling accepted, or as Pete says like you “matter to society” and to “friends and family,” is a critical element of healthy relationships. Natasha says it nice to have friends “who understand… If I don’t talk to them for like a week or two … they’re not judgey and angry about it.”
A number of people said relationships that provide them a “reality check” about their own feelings and perspective were crucial. Sam said he has gotten so much from relationships that help him perceive himself and his symptom in a way that “is healthier and more balanced.” Ben noted that he gets good perspective from his aunt on whether his medications are working effectively to clarify his thinking.
Fostering strong networks and getting a “fresh start”

A number of people we interviewed decided to change or expand their social networks by moving. Some people found these moves to be beneficial, particularly when they involved a transition away from places where mental illness was not well supported or accepted to places that constituted a better fit. When Nadina moved from the Southern to the Western part of the country, for example, she found people to be “way more understanding about depression and stuff like that.” More than a few people who moved, however, found the results disappointing because a geographic fix is just “not how depression works.” Colin said when he went to stay with a friend in another part of the country to get geographical distance from his problems, “I thought everything would be fine and then after about a week there, I just started losing myself again.”
See also ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Going public with depression?’, and ‘Depression, bias, and disadvantage’.
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