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

Depression and identity

Whether depression is mild or severe, once it is identified and named it has an impact on how people see themselves. Some young adults we interviewed for this study described “dual selves” - one self who is depressed, and another who is not. As Leanna put it, depression can be “a different personality.” Others talked about depression as just one part of their complicated identity. Many people said that they work hard to reach a healthy way of integrating their experiences with depression into their overall sense of self.
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For many people, depression symptoms can recur particularly in the context of life stress, less social support and coping difficulties. People emphasized that they think or hope they may be past the worst part of their depression, or that they see depression as more of a phase than a permanent part of life. Joey (age 27) describes his depression as mostly related to a difficult time in his young adulthood, transitioning from college and not having in place healthy ways to keep growing. Teddy (age 18) sometimes refers to his depression as “solved.”
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However, most people we talked to said they believe depression is part of who they are, that it is likely to be with them in some way for the long haul -- and also that it may come and go in cycles. For Kate, this means it is important to have her “strength and the fragility trying to work together.” Tia noted "some days I’m up, some days I’m down.” (See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope.’)
Managing depression as part of who you are

Separating their depression from their sense of self is an important coping mechanism for many people. As Mara described, it can be “… a really dangerous road to go down when you say… not only I have depression…, but I am depression.”
Many people developed ways of assigning the depressed part of themselves a “defined role,” which they understand to be just one of the many parts of who they are. For some, the depressed and non-depressed aspects of who they are simply shift back and forth over time. For others, the two parts remain in conflict: as Nadina put it, “I always feel like there’s this girl in me fighting a dragon and sometimes I’m winning and other times I’m just this bloody stump… it’s just a constant battle… but it, it gets better sometimes.” Sierra Rose described an “energetic, happy” self who was hired to work a customer service job, in conflict with a negative, brooding self who lost that same job.
People can experience depressed and non-depressed elements of identity all at the same time. Maya said she has been learning to “hold, you know, my experiences at once… [sometimes] I get things done and sometimes I can’t get out of bed.” Kate noted that she has to work hard to realize that strong emotions can be positive as well as negative, and that she deserves to feel the good as well as the bad ones on a regular basis.
Living with dual selves in the long term

Looking ahead to the long term, some people remain concerned about how to manage their depressed selves alongside their un-depressed ones. Cara, for example, said she tries “… not to get my hopes up because I feel like as soon as I do that I’m going to have a really bad phase.” Some of those we interviewed have learned effectively to manage or distance themselves from their depressed selves. Kate tried to bring the happy, energetic person she is when out and about back home, where her depressed side can otherwise take over.
See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, ’Depression and strategies for everyday life’, and ‘Depression and healing’.
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