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

Depression and work

Many young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have not yet had time to develop a long or diverse work history, regardless of whether they are depressed. Nonetheless, most people we interviewed talked about the impact depression had on their experiences with work, and/or about how work influenced their depression. Some also described how and whether they “went public” with their depression in professional environments, or what role income (or its absence) played in their lives.

Work making depression easier

A number of people described how work functions as an effective antidote to feelings of isolation, powerlessness, or low self-esteem that accompany depression. For some, being busy with work and “having a routine” as well as needed income was a tremendous help: as Meghan put it, “busy people are organized people and [having a campus job] has helped a lot… just being committed to something [and]… having a schedule that I can maintain.” Other people talked about work as a “productive distraction” which provides relief from endlessly “thinking about how I’m feeling.” Marty used his job to practice “step[ping up] and being a leader.”
A few people mentioned how the substantive focus of their work or the specific requirements of their job challenged them to move through symptoms of depression by making it necessary to “come out of my shell” or to be intensely “emotionally aware” of self and others. The opportunity that work creates to meet and spend time with other people was highlighted by several people as particularly meaningful.
Several people emphasized that earning money was a good motivator for them, and that having an income solved other problems in their lives such as tensions with partners about money.

Depression making work harder

Work was described by many people as a substantial or even overwhelming challenge. For some, depression and related issues made the daily stress and pressure of a job hard to manage. Getting up and out of the house can be a substantial barrier in and of itself: as Sam summarized, “I was consistently calling out because I was not able to get myself up in the morning to go to work.” Pete said depression makes it hard for him to focus and multitask as he is required to do at work. Colin recalled that when he was in a bad phase he “just couldn’t keep up” with demands on the job.
A number of people described losing jobs because depression made it too hard to continue. Casey’s job as a canvasser required him to be “energetic,” and he couldn’t sustain it through a downward spiral of his depression. Several others also described losing jobs because of poor attendance.
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(To learn more about the difficulty of performing day to day tasks, see ‘Depression and everyday tasks’.)

Unemployment and depression

Having a job is challenging for some depressed young adults, but lacking one can also be stressful or make symptoms of depression worse. Most talked about struggling with low self-esteem and too little structure in life when they didn’t have or couldn’t find a job. For several, transitions between jobs or between school and work triggered painful episodes of worsened depression.
Stigma, masking and work

A number of people talked about whether or not to “go public” with their depression at work. (See also ‘Going public with depression?’) Some worried that their history of depression might “negatively impact” career paths or that unmasking to anyone in a professional environment would create the impression of being “weak or crazy.” Others felt safe talking with employers about some aspects of their depression: Joey, for example, said he “wasn’t so specific when I told them at work,” but he did mention going through a “rough patch.” Mara and Sally both spoke about the importance of maintaining their appearance at work and hiding any physical evidence of depression or other mental health issues.
See also ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, and ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life.'
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