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

Depression, spirituality, and faith

For young adults, depression can feel like a “shroud of darkness” threatening to engulf the future. Recognizing that depression ebbs and flows over time offers one beacon of hope. For some people we interviewed, religion or spirituality offered another. In Tia’s words, “faith got me through” and she realized that depression “is a part of life that others have went through it.” Other people felt that religion worsened the impact of depression by impinging on their emerging identity or delaying access to treatment. Still others found that the search for their own beliefs after leaving their parents’ faith was difficult, and heightened the absence of purpose they already felt in connection with depression. 

Religion and faith can ease the impact of depression

Some young adults said faith gave them strength to go on even when depression sapped their will. Some looked to their spiritual beliefs to sustain hope, when depression made the future seem bleak. Some – even if they are not themselves religious -- found they were unconditionally accepted in communities of faith in unique ways. These experiences did not appear to be influenced by whether people were connected to conventional religious practices or more eclectic spiritual ones.

Many people talked about drawing on faith as a reservoir of strength during their struggles with depression. Leanna recalled that when she is in the depths of depression, she prays to the spirit of the earth to “like please help me and that usually slowly gets me out of there.” Others drew on varied faiths in their darkest moments or as they contemplated what the future might bring.
Some young adults described how religiously-observant people around them were particularly attentive, empathic and understanding towards others – and therefore a reliable source of support.
Some people also said spiritual beliefs helped them find direction that transcends depression’s impact. As Sierra Rose noted, “It helps to think that there is something bigger out there, that there is some purpose to all of this.” Jason, who is not religious, wondered “If I had, you know, a sense of faith and religion, maybe that could have made things better.” Sally saw how faith helped family members also struggling with depression, and observed that it “gives them a lot of hope” that they “wouldn’t otherwise have had”. 

Religion can make depression harder

Religion worsened depression’s toll for some people. Most often, this was because as they grew older, they moved away from their parents’ religion – and then struggled with feeling alienated or distant from devout family members, which compounded their depression. Whitney said her parents forced her to “participate and learn, study the Bible and it was just, it was a lot for me and it just sent me into this depression again cause… this isn’t what I believe in and it’s just… being forced down my throat.” One participant said that during high school she became “very angry with god” and “couldn’t deal with religion” – but then also “couldn’t deal with my family” and “couldn’t deal with anything.”
Myra and Sam both said their parents viewed increased spiritual commitment as the appropriate first response to emotional distress; since medical treatment was seen as a last resort, it was not sought in a timely way. Myra observed that in her religious community, mental health was recently starting to be more openly acknowledged for the first time.
Most children grow up in their parents’ religion, but as they grow older many begin to explore, as independent people, what feels right for them in the realm of faith. This transition can pose special challenges for those with depression. People we interviewed described a vacuum of meaning or purpose accompanying loss of or changes in their faith, and how this emptiness compounded their depression.
People who felt their family’s religion created impossible expectations or just could not accommodate who they are described having a particularly difficult time. Natasha’s sense that her parent’s religion could never accept her sexual identity, for example, left her more depressed. In her words, “My parents were really like very Christian people and so it’s sort of, we don’t really mesh well with this aspect of my personality…. It didn’t really register to me that that was what was happening but then as I got to college I realized that that was getting me down a lot”.
See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Having a purpose in life’.
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