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

Depression and school

Because school is a major part of the first two decades of life, most people ages 18-29 who think back on their depression find that school played a role. In the United States, many high schools and most colleges have resources available for identifying and treating depression, so school can also be a place to find help. Some young adults we interviewed talked about getting connected to treatment at or because of school. Others said school made things better or worse in particular ways, or described what it was like to cope with depression at school. This part of the website explores these experiences. 

Feeling depressed in school

Many people described being actively depressed while in school. For some, teachers or counselors in high school were the first adults to notice and start to address depression. Teddy, for example, wrote an essay that talked about how bad he was feeling, and the teacher who read it then helped address his depression. Several people’s parents reached out to guidance counselors, social workers or psychologists at school because they were worried about their child. Depression caused other teenagers to miss school because it was so hard to get out of bed or to stay organized.
A number of people found that the structure offered by school at whatever age (high school, college, or graduate school) made depression easier to handle. For example, Mara said that when she is keeping busy with school “… it’s difficult to ruminate and to stay in your head … [which is] really a key to staying afloat.” For some young people, school provided “a supportive environment with which to mess up” while trying to cope with their depression. Others spoke about the importance of useful distraction or a sense of purpose provided by school.
Other people spoke about how stress connected with school can make depression worse. Pressure can take the form of difficult and abundant school work, or of problematic social relationships such as bullying or being bullied. Ben said his low self-esteem made him an easy target for bullying, and the bullying in turn made his depression worse and his self-esteem yet lower. Jason describes a self-reinforcing cycle connected to performing well in school-- if you are depressed you “…don’t go to classes and then it makes you do poorly or perform less well, which then feeds back into feeling depressed, which then feeds back into not doing well “
New stages of life: going to college

About two-thirds of young Americans continue with some form of education after high school. Those we interviewed who had gone on to college spoke about both the up and the down sides for their depression. Some of those who didn’t go to college felt it was a missed opportunity: James, for example, says it’s essential to “control your depression” and finish school. 

People we interviewed who continued their education after high school often found that treatment for depression can be more available at college than was true in high school, and that those services can be crucial. Sally, for example, said she had the best therapist she ever found while at college. On the other hand, a number of people pointed out that school health services can have long wait times, limit the number of counseling or therapy appointments students can have at no cost, or rely on therapists who are still in training.
Several people described the relief of being able to seek care on their own once they were no longer living full time with parents who doubted their need for treatment. Some people also noted that there was heightened awareness about and less shame around depression on college campuses than in high school or their home towns. Others had a particular professor or counselor who was “so amazing” and helped them in meaningful ways.
Moving on to college also seemed to make depression worse in the short run for a number of people because it was new and stressful, or because they had moved away from their support system at home. Meghan thought college would be a fresh start, but when she got there found her depression was worse instead of better. Natasha found it difficult to deal with having less structure during the day, since “free time is… a trigger” that gets her down. Some people we interviewed found that a harder workload and more competition at college than in high school made everything more difficult.
Some people found creative ways to make college work for themselves, adapting how they went about it to accept and make allowances for their depression. Sara, for example, converted to studying on line, where she feels more productive and less judged or stressed.
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See also ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, ‘Depression and abuse’, ‘Depression and relationships’, and ‘Depression and everyday tasks.’
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