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

Depression and abuse

Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—especially in childhood—often leads to depression, shame and low self-esteem. These in turn increase the chance of having more abusive relationships in adult life. 

In this summary people describe the abuse they experienced and how it affects their depression. Reading about these experiences might be disturbing. Throughout and at the end of this summary we provide links to other topics that explore how these people coped with and heal from depression and abuse.

Abuse and depression in early family life

Most people who talked about abuse reported that it began at a young age in their family life. Parental (or step parental) alcoholism and mental illness played a significant role both in this abuse—and in later depression. Brendan’s stepfather was an “abusive alcoholic” and his mother was “simultaneously a victim and an abuser,” who “hasn't done much in the way of protecting me and my brother.” Marty learned at a young age that his alcoholic mother could enable his truancy and self-medicating, while his aggressive father “hit me, you know, he really abused me and that’s how it was.” Some people we interviewed who had experienced abuse early in life said they had suicidal thoughts, problems with substance abuse, and/or themselves replicated abusive relationships as they became young adults.
Many people we interviewed experienced emotional abuse in early life. Some felt they could never live up to their parents' expectations. The low self-esteem that resulted contributed to their depression, and led them to seek approval elsewhere, self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs, or engage in a range of self-destructive behaviors.
(To learn more about how people moved past these early life experiences, see ‘Depression and healing’.)


Some young adults attributed their depression and their risky behavior to the fact that their parents neglected them. As Ryan put it, “my parents weren’t there for me.” Neglect—the absence of attention—might be the flip side of verbal and physical abuse. As Devin describes, “My mother was the neglectful parent… So I just took stuff that I needed and left because I was feeling like I was unneeded and unwanted there.” Julia explains, “In high school my parents separated. My mom started dating and she worked a full time job. So she left me home a lot … It was just kind of depressing—that stage in your life is already difficult and it’s a huge transition, both physically, emotionally and socially.”
(To learn how Julia copes with the fact that her parents were not there for her, see ‘Depression and healing’ and ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’.)

Being placed in foster care was another consequence of parental neglect. Both Ryan and Leanna note that knowing their parent was not there for them left them hopeless, insecure and empty. These feelings, in turn, led to self-destructive and risky behaviors.
(See ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’ to learn how helping others made Leanna happy.)
(See ‘Depression and healing’ to learn how for Ryan it is important to realize that his depression is nobody’s fault.)

Bullying and depression

Bullying is another common element in the cycle between abuse and depression. Ben explains, “I was an easy target for bullying because I had low-confidence,” and then bullying “made my self-esteem lower and my depression worse.”
(See ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’ and ‘Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ to learn how Myra is moving on with her life.)

Partner violence

Some women said that depression and low self-esteem made them vulnerable to choosing and staying with abusive intimate partners.
(To learn how else Violet has been breaking the pattern of abuse, see ‘Depression and healing’, 'Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ and ‘Strategies for everyday life’.)

Some women got involved with partners who took their property and left them with debt, depression and heartache when they left. When Whitney’s boyfriend left, “He actually took the recovery drive to my computer, which actually sent me to even more of a depression. My daughter locked me out of my administrative account and you need that recovery drive in order to get your password and get back in. And I got kicked out of school.”
Sexual abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) 

Rape (including childhood sexual abuse) is the most common, non-combat trigger for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 65% of men and 46% of women who are raped develop PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include recurring flashbacks and avoidance.*1,*2 

A few people we interviewed mentioned having been sexually abused, or raped. These traumatic experiences, amplified depression and resulted in them having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
(To learn how Sierra Rose is coping with her experience of abuse see ‘Depression and healing’.)
(See ‘Depression and healing’ and ‘Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ to learn how Maya is moving on with her life.)

See also ‘How depression feels’, ‘Depression and identity’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘Having a purpose in life’, and ‘Therapy and counseling’.

*1 Teicher, Martin H., et al. "Length of Time between Onset of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Emergence of Depression in a Young Adult Sample." The Journal of clinical psychiatry 70.5 (2009): 684. 

*2 “Facts and Statistics”. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. September 2014. Web. 7 February 2016. 

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