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

Depression and relationships

Every young adult we interviewed said depression had significantly altered their relationships with other people. For many, the state of these relationships served as an important way to gauge the power depression had over their lives, and their own ability to cope with it. 

This part of the website explores the impact that depression had on peoples’ relationships with family members, friends, and intimate partners. See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’ for an exploration of strategies people used to strengthen their relationships, both old and new.

Relationships as a gauge for the impact of depression

Many people we interviewed said depression made their interactions with other people more difficult. Pete warned that when depressed, encounters with almost anyone – strangers, family, friends – just “leave you irritable.” To avoid being subject to the opinions of other people, James recommended that “if you’re depressed you should just treat yourself and take yourself out; when you’re depressed you don’t want anybody to judge you”. Often, social connections suffered and turned into social isolation because when depressed, young adults felt unworthy of other people’s attention; so misunderstood that relationships seemed meaningless; or unable to muster the energy to interact.
People described relationships that survived the tensions produced by depression as vital sources of continued support. Brendan noted “My depression was so hard for me to manage. I leaned very heavily on my friends.” Strong relationships also proved to those with depression that they were still relied upon and valued. As Teddy put it: “I need my friends and family to know that I’m there to support them and they’re there to support me when I need it most.” 

“Unbreakable” bonds with family

Being on good terms with family was very important for many of the people we talked to. For some, feeling at peace with relatives provided a tranquil center in the midst of other turbulent relationships. Sam and Colin both described feeling “huge relief” when stresses with parents could be set right. Family was also seen by some as offering secure protection against depression – a source of unconditional support, whatever the future would bring.
However, family was not reliably present or available for many people we interviewed. In some cases, the family itself had unraveled, making family relationships feel unreliable or unsafe (see ‘Depression and feeling different at a young age”). In other cases family bonds that had once been strong disintegrated: as Teddy noted, sometimes “family can leave you as well as friends”. 

People described several ways depression further challenged family ties. Some people chose to hide their suffering from parents and other family members so that they would not worry, and ended up feeling distant as a result. As Tia put it, when her depression was at its worst she “didn’t want to share that feeling… with my family because of I didn’t want them to worry, but my friends I kind of told them.”
Many people described a need to “distance” themselves from others when they felt most depressed. As Kate put it “I tend to push people away in different manners so that when I actually reach the low point of my cycle, I can just do it alone.” But since teenagers have little capacity to put distance between themselves and others living in the family home, conflict often resulted.
Some people described family relationships strained by constant worry, uncertainty and emotional instability. In Pete’s words: “I’ve been getting the sense that my family are kind of tired of [my depression]”. People also described how the passage of time and increased maturity could heal or begin to heal these ruptures.
Friendships and peers

Friends are an easier source of support and understanding than family for many people. Long-time friendships can mimic the reliability of family relationships in a helpful way. Megan, for example, talked about two long-time friends who were “always there to talk to me and always supported me” as reliably as any family. 

A number of people described wishing for friends whose lives seemed happier, more stable and more “on track” than their own. As Jeremy put it, “I like being around happy people; their energy is always appreciated.” (See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’). But these types of friendships often felt hard to manage while dealing with depression. Sophie says she had friends who didn’t know how to react to her depression, “…and they would distance themselves and I would be kind of confused and sometimes that made it worse of course because they wouldn’t talk to me anymore and it’s because I didn’t know how to deal with either so I don’t blame them but it was hard.”
In the face of these challenges, some young people with depression sought out friends with whom they felt more in common -- people whose own lives were in a “lull” or who, in Nadina’s words “have similar feelings like I do, like feelings of inadequacy and feeling like they’re never good enough.” These friends required less pretense, and seemed more trustworthy because they had shared struggles. But such friendships carried their own challenges, since they also proved more unstable.
Intimate partnerships and self-understanding

People described their relationships with primary partners as sharing some features of friendships, and some of family. However, the stakes are often higher. On the upside, intimate partners can be the mirrors through which young people more clearly see themselves and their mental health. On the downside, the ending of romantic relationships can feel traumatic; many of the people we talked to described how these endings triggered or deepened their depression.

Intimate relationships are characterized, at least in part, by close proximity. But such closeness poses challenges when depression dramatically alters moods. As Kate noted, “When I am in a relationship, I might not be consistently talking to them or I might not be consistent in the way that I approach them …. There’s a lot of patience I need from them.” The need for patience extends to sexual intimacy too, because those suffering from depression may be “the type of person that can switch from normal and everything’s great and then all of a sudden you have no desire what so-ever.” Several people talked about how their mood swings made it crucial to tell partners about depression so as to avoid misunderstandings and tensions so deep that they threatened the relationship.
People with partners who also experience depression or other kinds of mental illness had a variety of experiences with these relationships. On the one hand, partners with mental illness could be most understanding and helpful in dealing with depression’s debilitating symptoms. Sara, for example, described how her partner who also struggles with depression “understands when I just want to cry. He understands I don’t want to talk about it; I can just cry”. On the other hand, people described how relationships with depressed partners could exacerbate depressive symptoms, trapping both partners in a cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that for some felt “extremely toxic”. As Julia put it, having a depressed boyfriend put her “… in the role of caretaker or caregiver. You know like I had to give him everything and he wasn’t in a place where he could give me anything. And, once again, like that distracted me from dealing with my stuff.”
See also ‘Depression and feeling different when young’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’.
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