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

Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression is associated with many mental and physical symptoms, which are often used to screen for depression in clinical settings. This summary focuses specifically on how people experience symptoms of depression. Other parts of this website focus on symptoms related to other mental health issues that often co-exist with depression, and on how depression feels from the person’s point of view. (For more information, see ‘Depression and anxiety’, ‘Depression and eating disorders’, ‘Depression and OCD’, ‘How depression feels’.)

Feeling different, sad, or emotionally out of control

People we interviewed said that when depressed they did not feel like their “normal selves.” For some this meant becoming less social. Pete described how he “would lock myself up in my room…There would be days that if I was around family or if I was around friends or if it was a regular day, I just wouldn’t speak to anyone. Not even a teacher if they actually had a question”. 

Others described crying in situations when they otherwise would not. Sally said, “I came back to visit my cat and I just saw him and I started bawling because I just like couldn’t control myself. I just kept crying and crying for like 20 minutes for like no reason and then after that I realized like, there’s something probably not necessarily ok.” Sophie described that in middle school she would “get really… hopeless” and “just start crying out of nowhere”. Sara said when she’s not on medication for depression, she is “in bed, crying all the time. Every 20 minutes I could look up at the sky and start crying because it’s not blue”.
Feeling irritable, angry, and cynical

Several people reported feeling more irritable or angry than usual when depressed. Jacob says he would “get upset and angry and irritated… it was… hurting my personal relationships, especially my romantic relationships… just getting confrontational and irritable”. A few people said that for them, anger could lead to violence. As Teddy put it he “didn’t hurt anyone” but “just kept punching walls and like making holes in them.” A few people spoke about feeling cynical towards the world. Crystal described “outwardly I saw the world as the thing that made me this way, that... damaged me”. Pete similarly describes that, “Everything I see has a negative to it, everything, the way I go about it in life I am prepared for the worst to happen all the time”.
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Having negative thoughts or suicidal thoughts.

Many of those who talked to us described how depression was associated with negative and suicidal thoughts. For more on this topic, please see 'How depression feels' and 'Depression and suicide'. 

If you currently feel suicidal or know someone who is feeling suicidal, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1 (800) 273-8255.

Feeling guilty

It is common for people with depression to have negative or self-blaming thoughts. Some of those we interviewed said they felt guilty that their friends and family have had to deal with their depressed selves. Ryan describes his guilt for putting his girlfriend through his depression: “I felt like she had to deal with everything that I was dealing with… it was hard for me to understand at first that she was dealing with it because she loved me, actually really supported me. So it was, it was hard at first... to be able to talk to somebody.” 

Colin said he felt “guilty for being depressed” because he had “such a good family”. He described the help he received from a therapist telling him “There is really no need for self-loathing, there’s no reason to hate yourself, you’re not doing anything wrong…We all are just here trying to do the best with what we are given.” Myra also felt guilty for worrying her parents.

Others, like Sophie, said they felt guilty for not making a contribution. She said, “I never felt lazy when I was depressed but I felt like I was taking up space like I wasn’t doing anything”. 

Loss of interest in usual pleasurable activities 

Of the young adults we interviewed, many described losing interest in things that that used to bring them joy. Some people attributed this loss of joy or to a specific event, but could not pinpoint the cause. People first noticed something was wrong when they stopped enjoying activities that they used to love. Colin says he stopped creating art, which he used to love to do. Pete could no longer sit through a movie, did not find joy from playing video games, and foods that he used to enjoy, like sushi, “didn’t taste the same”.
Other people noticed that the people around them seemed happier than they were. Crystal describes that at summer camp she was “struck by how badly I tended to react to certain things that excited other people. There was an activity and it was simple, everyone was having fun but just looking at it I was just like confused, it didn’t excite me. I didn’t want to engage with it.”
Lacking motivation

Some people said depression drains their motivation. Mara describes by being aware of this, saying she “can fight through this and if I can suffer now, I am going to be able to reap the benefits later and I’m going to be stronger for it”.
Trouble concentrating or remembering

Reduced ability to focus, remember to do daily tasks, or to balance multiple responsibilities were also discussed by people in the interviews. Some said that when depressed, they made uncharacteristic mistakes. Jason, for example, noted that when he is depressed his “short term memory is impaired” and that he will “send emails and I forget to include the name... [or] I forget I have an important exam at 2 PM”. Impaired concentration impacted people’s ability to work or do well in school. Meghan says she wasn’t doing well in school, because, “I just couldn’t take really anything seriously and I couldn’t devote myself to anything because I couldn’t focus, my mind was just always racing with thoughts that I couldn’t control”.
Physical symptoms of depression

Physical symptoms of depression include joint pain, backache or stomach irritation. A number of people we interviewed reported feeling these physical symptoms. Maya for example says there were “so many things wrong” with her physically, and that depression and “chronic health issues” absolutely flow “hand in hand.”
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Lack of energy or fatigue

Lack of energy was a common symptom people experienced with their depression. Some described this feeling as “not wanting to get out of bed.” As Joey put it, “you’re just like tired but for… no reason.” Violet said, “I have no energy. I just want to curl up in a ball, I don’t really want to think about anything, I don’t want to do anything.”
Difficulty performing daily activities

When depressed several people said they did not take care of themselves -- for example, they could not attend to their hygiene or participate in regular life activities like school or work. Crystal said she needed someone to “help me get into the shower, like the basic things” and that she “can’t really eat on my own”. Ben similarly said, “I was at the point where I wasn’t taking showers... And that time I was a lot skinnier than I am now, just not really looking too good”.

Jason said his depression makes it hard to exercise. He would rather “just… stay in my room and do nothing. Just lie in bed all day feeling… down… and I have a lot of… bad thoughts… I didn’t feel like I had the energy or…. the capacity or...the will power to go exercise.”

Sleep problems

While many people said they slept more than usual when depressed, others people reported not being able to sleep or sleeping at unusual times.
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Changes in sexual desire 

People we interviewed also reported changes in sexual desire. Elizabeth says, “I’m not feeling happy or I’m feeling suicidal or I’m feeling unworthy it does, it doesn’t make you feel worthy physically either”. Some, like Whitney, became more sexually active when she was depressed. She says she, “kinda lost respect for myself and depression only made that worse cause you kinda cling to other people and they said you engage yourself in risky behaviors, a lot, and that’s something that I regret”. (See also Depression and relationships.)

Changes in appetite 

Eating more or less than usual can both be signs of depression. Some people described battling overeating, while others, like Sally, said “the food was really good I just didn’t have an appetite”. Some people described gaining or losing a large amount of weight in a short period of time. Meghan says she gained weight during her senior year of high school, and this made her feel more depressed. She says, “I just felt helpless because I wasn’t myself mentally, I wasn’t myself physically, I just didn’t even recognize myself”.
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Some people described their issues with eating as part of having an eating disorder. (For more see Depression and eating disorders.)

See also ‘How depression feels’ and ‘Depression and feeling different when young’.

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