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

Depression and transitions to adulthood

The years between eighteen and thirty mark a time of transition from adolescence into fully-fledged adulthood. These are, as Kate put it, the years when people try to become “an entire human being, an adult person responsible for… herself.” People we interviewed described how this transition was influenced by their depression. They described how many of its stages – such as leaving school or home – unfolded. 

People’s experiences with the transition to adulthood were diverse. Broadly speaking, however, people found that depression made growing up harder, that growing up made depression easier, or both.
Depression can make growing up harder

People described many ways that depression made growing up more difficult. As Sam put it, “having depression has definitely thrown wrenches in the works of my stumbling entrances into adult life.” Sierra Rose noted “… the growing up and the pressures and the way everything is set up now, it’s hard.”

For those whose depression began in childhood, it can be challenging to develop an identity apart from depression or to find a purposeful path forward. Leanna said depression has “molded my identity by kind of preventing me from doing a lot of things that I really wanted to do… the depression held me back…[and] robbed my life.” When Mara thinks about her life, she wonders how much of her personality “… is me and how much of that was influenced and conditioned by… this disease.”
People spoke about how their longer-term aspirations in life are influenced by depression. Ryan said he wonders, “Am I still normal? Can I be okay later in life?” Others described struggles with low self-esteem “pulling you down,” making the transitions associated with adulthood feel like things “you are not good enough to do.” Pete said depression makes it much harder to “be a man” and “stand on your own two feet” because all of that requires thinking ahead, but the best way to deal with depression is one step at a time. Frankie described how the experiences people commonly experience while growing up, like applying for a job you don’t get, are things she “just cannot get over” because of her depression.
Jobs, careers and children

Jobs or career are one specific part of growing up that depression can make more difficult. As Elizabeth put it, one of her negative thought patterns was “… if I didn’t do well in school how could I go on to have a career? How can I support myself? My life was worthless.” Whitney “shuts down” when she starts wondering how she can find work and live on her own. (See “Depression and work” for a full exploration of this topic.)

People we interviewed who have children described mixed experiences with parenthood. A few people who struggled not only with depression but also with substance abuse and other issues had lost custody of their children – and found this loss, in turn, made “depression even worse.” Whitney, for example, says not having custody of her daughter makes her feel like she is not “normal like everybody else” she knows who have spouses, jobs, and education. In contrast, Sara and Violet described parenthood as a life-changing event that motivated them to (in Sara’s words) “get myself better… for her sake” and become the best mother possible.
A number of people who did not yet have children talked about how they imagined future parenthood. Joey said that because he thinks depression is influenced a lot by environment, he doesn’t worry “about having a kid that just… for no reasons is like, depressed.” Several people were thinking about what it would take to avoid letting their depression affect children they might have in future. As Leanna put it, “I just want to be able to function normally as a good mother and provide the childhood that I pretty much never had.” Nadina said she doesn’t think she is “psychologically stable enough to have a kid …[and] if I did have a child I feel like I would worry about how my mental health has affected them.” Crystal said she is nowhere near ready to become a parent yet, adding “I have trouble raising myself!”
Shifting support systems

A number of people talked about how changes in their support networks affected their depression as they progressed towards adulthood. Shayne says she wished she had known earlier that depression would be an increasing challenge as she “move[d] away from really strong support systems [to] become an adult.” One person described her depression worsening when she went away to college and no longer had the same level of contact with her boyfriend from home.
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See also ‘Depression and school’, and ‘Depression and relationships’.

Early depression can enrich adulthood

Several people described how depression in childhood enriched their lives as they grew to adulthood. Jeremy, for example, said he is happy that difficult experiences early in life provided a “trial run” so that when “stuff gets real… as you get older” he knew “how to deal with it [or be]… aware enough of my emotions.” Sam talked about how valuable it has been both for healing his depression and for life in general to gain “the ability to assess what's going on both on and under the surface of my mind and make healthy choices about how to deal with and navigate them.” A number of people we interviewed described how depression had made them more mindful about their relationships with others, and more capable of nurturing healthy connections.

See also ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘The positive sides of depression’ and ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’.”

Growing up can make depression easier

For many people, growing out of adolescence and into new phases of life helped loosen depression’s hold. A number of young adults described how getting a driver’s license, moving out of their parents’ home, earning their own money, making their own decisions about meds, and generally being less “at the whim of other people” helped lessen their depression. As Casey put it, “as I got older I got better at dealing with things… I’m a 22-year-old adult, I’m gonna go on a drive because I’m feeling sad today.” 

Other people talked about how the emotional maturity and perspective they gained as they grew lightened the burden of depression. For some, this meant gaining the ability to better withstand peer pressure or being judged by others: in Nadina’s words, “people are not the ultimate, you know, go to person… like people have their own opinion, their own ideas about certain things, but I just had to realize…I really need to listen more to myself because there have been things that have almost like destroyed me.” Others talked about how some aspects of depression just “cleared up” as they matured and they gained more perspective, maturity, and sound judgment.
A number of people described gaining the ability to manage cycles of depression as they grew up. As Jacob put it, depression “never actually goes away and it’s not something you can necessarily solve… [but] you just get better coping” with it. Violet said she used to think “no matter what I do I’m always going to feel like this,” but eventually she realized this was not so.
See also 'Cycles of depression and maintaining hope.'

Adulthood and transitions

Transitions of any kind were described by many people we spoke to as a significant “trigger” for depression. As Sally put it, “transition… was always my issue.” Because the path from adolescence to adulthood is marked by significant transitions, it can be particularly tricky to navigate. Some of the transitions people describes included new living situations, moves into and out of school, attachments to new people, and the assumption of new responsibilities. Many of these transitions and their associated hopes and disappointments are explored in other parts of the website referred to at the bottom of this page. Here, we focus on the transition out of college and into the world of work, which was a significant passage for the subset of those we interviewed who attended and graduated from college. See also ‘Depression and school’.

People had mixed experiences of the transition out of college, some of which had lasting impact. Sally and Elizabeth, for example, both struggled mightily with the transition period itself, sinking into deep depression while job hunting. Once they found employment, however, things improved: as Elizabeth put it, working is “really positive, it makes me feel accomplished, I’m good at what I do [and] I love what I do.” Joey had a very different experience after college, because he didn’t feel that his life continued to progress in a useful way.
Accepting depression as a part of adulthood

A number of people talked about accepting the possibility that depression will remain part of life – though maybe in a milder form - as a crucial part of embracing adulthood. Natasha summarized it this way: “I think since I am coming into adulthood it’s becoming something that… is an aspect of my personality, this is something that I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life presumably, and sort of like accepting that and being okay with it” is key. Some people emphasized that it felt important to make peace with their childhood, even if it involved abuse or neglect, in order to move on (despite the legacy of depression) and become a grown up. A couple of people felt the question of whether depression would remain part of life for them remains open, and talked about what it takes to deal with that uncertainty.
See also ‘Depression and school’, ’Depression, bias, and disadvantage’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’, ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘The positive sides of depression’, and ‘Depression and healing’.
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