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

Having a purpose in life

A common symptom of depression is the absence of purpose and meaning in life. Finding or regaining a feeling of connection to a “purpose on this earth” (as Marty put it) was important to a number of the people we interviewed. In particular, people spoke about how a sense of purpose gives meaning to their life, motivates them to plan for the long-term, and helps them align their actions with what they most value. 

This section explores how people described finding an overarching purpose in life, and how that sense of purpose then guides their decisions and their actions. (To learn about how people developed short-term strategies to cope with depression, see ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’.)

Finding purpose

Finding purpose and meaning in life – perhaps even or especially in suffering -- is widely recognized as an antidote to feeling worthless or depressed*. For the young adults we interviewed, the search for meaning was highly individual. Some people found meaning by adopting an existing philosophy, and others developed their own philosophy and purpose in life. 
Myra captured a sentiment common across these approaches. “I don't think that we're here to just to take in all the pleasures and pass on to the next life or back into the dirt,” she said. Rather, “We all serve a purpose to help others.” 

Tapping into what people perceived as a “universal truth” provided them with a structure and a deep sense of being connected to a “greater purpose.” (See also ‘Depression and spirituality’.)
By noting that “each individual constructs their own sense of purpose and meaning of life,” Colin expresses a well-accepted perspective that suffering is part of the human condition and opens the potential for personal transformation and growth. This growth entails making meaning of trauma and suffering, and choosing a healing or creative path instead of a destructive one*1. (See also ‘The positive sides of depression’ and ‘Depression and suicide’.)
Other people described integrating teachings they learned from their religious upbringing with their own sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Aligning life purpose with career 

Having a sense of purpose in life motivated a number of people to develop their professional talents. This practical as well as philosophical focus served, in many cases, to counterbalance their depression. For some people, setting a goal for a career motivates them to do what is necessary to keep mental health issues under control. For instance, Mara started taking an antidepressant, because as she said, “It was important to me that I be able to maintain this image of myself as an ambitious, professional, hard-working person.” 

A caring mentor encouraged some people to develop their talents and their self-discipline to build a career that matters to them and creates a sense of mastery. As Sophie and Julia describe, this was a significant turning point in their journey to heal their depression. (See also ‘Depression and healing’ and ‘Depression and work.’)
Like Julia, other young adults we interviewed also chose a career path in the helping professions.
Helping others gives life meaning

Setting an intention to help or care for others, and then following through on this desire, was a powerful way to counter depression. As Sierra Rose put it, “all I hope to do with my life, with what suffering from depression and everything else has taught me, is to help other people… [and] teach other people.” 

A few people talked about helping others by addressing social ills. For instance, Brendan intends to use his music to “serve as a platform for some progressive politics.” To call out those “who abuse their power in order to benefit themselves at the expense of others. … Wall Street bankers collapsing the world economy and then getting away with it or congressmen rezoning their districts so that minorities don't have voice.” This sense of purpose helps Brendan to productively channel his long-standing anger issues. (See also, ‘Depression and abuse’.)

Most people, however, identified their purpose as helping people on a personal level. Some young adults do this as a way of counterbalancing or compensating for negative behaviors associated with their depression. As Shayne says, “I try really hard to be a better person than I am when I’m sad or upset or angry, when my mental illness has more power than I do, so to speak. So, I, you know, I do lots of things. I volunteer, I teach, I do research.”
Some found a deep sense of meaning in dedicating themselves to helping others, even if it entails some sacrifice.
Other people described deriving a sense of value in helping friends who also suffer with depression and mental illness.
See also ‘Depression and identity’, ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘The positive sides of depression’, ‘Depression, spiritualty, and faith’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Depression and work’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and suicide’, and ’Depression and healing’.

*Killam, Kasley. “How to Find Meaning in Suffering” Useful insights from research on “post-traumatic growth”. Scientific American. 15 December 2015. Web. 7 February 2016.

*1 Frankl, Viktor E. Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

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