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

Depression and feeling different when young

There is no single way that first experiences with depression unfold. People we interviewed described how, when and where their depression began in a variety of ways. In the United States, the average age when depression begins is 32*. However, depression is also common in younger age groups, with an estimated 10% of adolescents reporting depression within the past year*.Of the young adults we interviewed many began to feel depressed either in childhood, or (most commonly) as teenagers. Some people did not have significant experiences with depression until they were in their twenties.

How depression begins

Some of those interviewed had no memory of their depression emerging because, as Sierra Rose put it, “it’s always been there.” A couple of people could not say when or how their depression began. Most, however, described a particular period of time, event, or significant change in emotions they could clearly link with first memories of feeling depressed. For example, Teri said in late high school she noticed she “quit caring about things,” and Crystal says in middle school she began to feel flat, unengaged, and “wanting to be in my sadness.” Some people talked about depression setting in when they got to college, or how “everything just seemed amplified, like… small things would really get to me”. For Jacob, depression began with “just a chronic sort of dissatisfaction” that he thought at first maybe everyone feels.
People described a number of specific ways they knew something was wrong such as feeling suicidal at an early age, or first becoming depressed after a break-up or difficult family event. Others spoke about feeling angry, irritable or guilty; finding they were no longer able to feel pleasure; or withdrawing from friends and growing isolated.
A number of people realized only in retrospect that they had been depressed for a long time without knowing it. Some said that when they started to feel bad they just “didn’t understand what it was” and were not yet familiar with the term “depression.” Others thought what they were experiencing was just “a typical thing” connected to growing up. Pete, for example, says when he was a child he “just saw it as me having a bad few days,” but he now realizes he has been depressed for a long time.
Role of parents and caregivers 

Young adults with depression are likely to have begun experiencing symptoms when they were still at home with their parents or other caregivers. For many, these adults in the childhood home played a key role noticing that something was amiss and taking steps to get help. For others, such adults made things more difficult.

Several of the people we interviewed had parents who are mental health professions. As Shayne said, her parents could “recognize [depression] right away” and make an appointment with a doctor or therapist. A number of other parents contacted their child’s school counselor or psychologist as a first step. Meghan said her mom was the first person to whom she was able to open up and confide; Casey is grateful his parents have helped with therapy. Siblings, grandparents, intimate partners, and other important adults were also helpful to a number of people.
People also described parents and other family members as being unhelpful or even harmful with respect to early experiences with depression. Some parents were themselves depressed or struggling with substance abuse, and not able to notice or respond to signs of depression in their child. Leanna and others said they would stay in bed and miss school, and their parents did nothing about it. 

A number of people said their parents actively denied their depression by not wanting to believe there was an issue, dismissing it as a strategy for getting attention, or saying they thought it could be overcome by force of will. Violet’s mother told Violet she couldn’t actually be depressed if she is not confined to bed. Cara’s mother objected to therapy and Cara believes she would object to medication as well. Myra’s mother wanted her to keep any sign of depression hidden because of the stigma associated with depression.
(See also ‘Depression and self-harming’. ‘Depression and relationships’. ‘Depression and abuse’. ‘How depression feels’ and ‘Young adults’ views about what causes depression.’) 

*“Major Depression Among Adolescents.” National Institutes of Health, n.d., Web. 7 February 2016. 

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