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

The positive sides of depression

Most young adults we interviewed described ways depression enriches their lives despite - or in some cases because of -- the suffering it causes. Many people said depression made them more aware, empathic, kind or humble. Others linked their creativity or strength to experiences with depression: as Kate put it, “there's a lot of duality in the fact that I'm fragile but also very, very strong.” Jason summarized a general feeling of gratitude, saying “I feel like through the experience I value my life more. I value my loved ones more.” Ben pointed out that many positive role models, like the actor Jim Carrey, bring “remarkable attributes” to the world and illustrate that depression “doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means you’re struggling.”
Depression as a curse and a blessing

A number of people explicitly linked together multiple sides of their emotional lives, noting that “you don’t get all the lessons and like, the rewards without going through the crappy part of it.” Jeremy said that even though he suffers depression during the winter, “everything’s about balance” and the turning of the seasons is essential for maintaining that balance. 

Brendan acknowledged, with humor, that depression does indeed have a silver lining -- but this is more of a “consolation prize” on “a very huge, very dark cloud… [that] anybody would prefer to not have to endure… in the first place.” Jackson is grateful for the strength he gained through his depression experiences but is now ready “to live a life that maybe won’t be filled with mostly depression at all.”
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Empathy and awareness

Many people said that learning to empathize -- that is, to understand and share another person’s emotions or experience -- was a hard-won but valuable gift associated with depression. Sophie said in the past it was hard to know what to do when friends were having problems, but depression has made her “more empathic towards people who are going through it as well.” Jeremy says he has learned to put himself “in other people’s shoes.” Several people described becoming less likely to “judge those who have mental illness” because they realize that “no one is exempt” from depression and everyone is deserving of compassion. For Joey, helping other people with depression has become “one of the side projects of my life.”
Struggles with depression led to increased self-awareness for a number of people we interviewed -- and many of them said being more attuned to their own emotions also made them more attuned to others. Jackson said his “early intense experiences” have given him “a lot of self-awareness… like I really understand my expression of emotions [and]… sometimes where they’re originating from even.” Another participant described how having low self-esteem has made her sensitive to supporting other people, taking care “not to make anyone else feel that way.” Shayne observes that she is “exceedingly emotionally sensitive,” which means she can be easy to mistreat but also “super kind… understanding, and empathetic.”
A few people described a satisfying synergy between their efforts to be less isolated with their own depression and their growing capacity to empathize with others. As Maya put it, “I’ve many times been on the side of the table where you know, I’m holding someone else’s pain and I’m here to compassionately listen and be very attuned, but other times I need someone to hold that space for me, that safety, that nurturing and that compassion.”
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Many people we interviewed are artists: musicians, designers, actors, writers, visual artists. Most of them said depression and creativity are linked, one way or another. In Kate’s words, “depression is one of the main drives that I have in being creative. I can’t not be creative.” Brendan said depression is a big theme in his music -- especially the concept that “this is temporary and something better’s coming from it.” Joey described music he created while depressed as having a “build up of something… a dynamic structure… towards the fight.” By contrast, he felt the music he made while on medication was “middle of the road… just going through the motion.”
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See also ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Having a purpose in life’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’.
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