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

Young adults’ views about what causes depression

Scientists do not know exactly what causes depression, but they believe a variety of factors contribute to it. These include brain chemistry, genetic predispositions, life circumstances, hormones, substance abuse and certain illnesses. In many cases depression may be caused by a combination of factors.

People we interviewed offered many explanations for their own depression. A few people said they didn’t know what caused it, or that they wished an expert could give them solid reasons. One said she thinks depression may just have to “with who we are fundamentally as people.” A number of people thought depression was caused by multiple, inter-connected factors. As Crystal put it, “My depression is complicated. I mean everyone’s depression is a little bit complicated and individualized.” Elizabeth had a similar view of hers as “…a combination of environmental factors, circumstantial factors, and biological factors too.”
Common descriptions most people offered about causes of depression fall into 3 categories.

Biological explanations

Many of the people we spoke to said they thought hormones, a chemical imbalance, and/or genetics play a large role in causing depression. Violet noted that she always believed depression had “something to do with hormones… [and was not] something you caught, obviously.” Crystal said she thinks part of her depression came from biological changes in her young adult years, and that she could have “tackled it a little bit earlier” if she or her family had been more on the lookout for this. A number of people talked about how understanding depression as a biological issue made it easier not to blame themselves.
Genetics – that is, traits or susceptibilities passed down through biological families – was also named by many as a cause of depression. Marty thinks his depression was passed on through his mother’s side of the family; his siblings are not affected, but he “drew the short straw.” Maya said she thinks there is a genetic component to depression that “dictates sort of your set point for happiness.”
Several people pointed out that their family’s history with depression had been hidden from them. One reason people gave for this secrecy is that depression is stigmatized in their culture, and therefore it is not spoken about much or at all. Another is that their parents wanted to protect them from knowing about this history, or were simply trying to conceal their own depression.
Childhood and family issues

Many people described chaotic, difficult, or abusive living situations in childhood as a significant cause of their depression. As Brendan puts it, these “background… stresses in my life… might have contributed to my depression from an early age.” Specific stresses people described include not having a father figure, divorce, moving often, having an unstable household, being in foster care, being neglected and left home alone, and having parents who were themselves depressed or struggling with substance abuse. People also described “being poor in America” as a contributing factor. (National data from 2014 shows that people who live in poverty are more than twice as likely to have depression as people at or above the poverty level*.)
Changes in society

People also experienced modern life as contributing to depression. Maya notes that social media create a false impression that everyone is always “purely at their best,” and makes it much harder to “show ourselves when we are struggling.” Joey wonders if “insane modern society” has been resulting in larger numbers of depressed people.
(See also ‘Depression, medication and treatment choices’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Depression and feeling different when young’.)

* Pratt, Laura, and Debra Brody. “Depression in the U.S. Household Population, 2009-2012.” National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief 172 (2014).

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