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

Depression and relationships

Every young adult we interviewed said depression had significantly altered their relationships with other people. For many, the state of these relationships served as an important way to gauge the power depression had over their lives, and their own ability to cope with it. 

This part of the website explores the impact that depression had on peoples’ relationships with family members, friends, and intimate partners. See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’ for an exploration of strategies people used to strengthen their relationships, both old and new.

Relationships as a gauge for the impact of depression

Many people we interviewed said depression made their interactions with other people more difficult. Pete warned that when depressed, encounters with almost anyone – strangers, family, friends – just “leave you irritable.” To avoid being subject to the opinions of other people, James recommended that “if you’re depressed you should just treat yourself and take yourself out; when you’re depressed you don’t want anybody to judge you”. Often, social connections suffered and turned into social isolation because when depressed, young adults felt unworthy of other people’s attention; so misunderstood that relationships seemed meaningless; or unable to muster the energy to interact.
 
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Because he felt unworthy, it was hard for Brendan to trust the relationships that he had created.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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My depression and my anxiety would, you know, affect me in the ways of like, I would be convinced that sometimes I-- Even against all logic that, you know, my friends secretly hated me and that they were just, you know, tolerating me because, you know, I have low self-worth, therefore I can't understand why people would like me, therefore they must not really like me. 
 
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Whitney felt that her parents never really understood how depression altered her life

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Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 9
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It’s affecting me a lot. Like now, pretty much, my mom doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. My dad hates me. They don’t understand me. They don’t understand why I am the way I am. I think they still have to accept that it’s something I struggle with every day and they’re not really knowledgeable on the whole fact of what depression can actually do and how severe it can get. 
 
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Depression holds Sierra Rose back from all sorts of relationships.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
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It feels like there’s this shadow or this chain holding me back saying, “No you can’t, you can’t go have fun with your friends, you can’t have friends. I’m not going to let you get off the couch this week. Oh you’re home alone, well it looks like you’re staying here for the rest of the day.”
People described relationships that survived the tensions produced by depression as vital sources of continued support. Brendan noted “My depression was so hard for me to manage. I leaned very heavily on my friends.” Strong relationships also proved to those with depression that they were still relied upon and valued. As Teddy put it: “I need my friends and family to know that I’m there to support them and they’re there to support me when I need it most.” 

“Unbreakable” bonds with family

Being on good terms with family was very important for many of the people we talked to. For some, feeling at peace with relatives provided a tranquil center in the midst of other turbulent relationships. Sam and Colin both described feeling “huge relief” when stresses with parents could be set right. Family was also seen by some as offering secure protection against depression – a source of unconditional support, whatever the future would bring.
 

Sara’s grandmother was a vital source of support, even though she didn’t really understand how Sara’s depression felt.

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Age at interview: 26
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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My grandmother was and she encouraged me a lot to go get help. She didn’t think, she’s like, old, really, not really old ,but she’s not used to seeing a therapist and go do this and she didn’t bring her kids to do all that kind of stuff. She was new to it, but she listened to what I had to say. She didn’t understand what I was going through, but she was there to support me and that was, that was a big help. My grandmother was a really big help with all of my depression, especially my postpartum depression with my daughter. She was, without her I don’t know where I would be.
 

Depression fractured some family ties for Mara, but others survived.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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So it put a huge strain on the relationship with my mom which is totally regrettable, but in a lot of ways I think it was sort of my relationship with her that lead to a lot of the feelings that sort of fed into my, my depressive personality and my self-injury. And then on the other hand my dad has always been like, my number one advocate so it was really nice just having a lot of support from him and just having support from him as somebody who was willing to say, “I have no idea what, where this is coming from, I have no background in this I can’t comprehend it, but I really want to be here to support you through whatever you’re going through.” So that was invaluable to me. 
However, family was not reliably present or available for many people we interviewed. In some cases, the family itself had unraveled, making family relationships feel unreliable or unsafe (see ‘Depression and feeling different at a young age”). In other cases family bonds that had once been strong disintegrated: as Teddy noted, sometimes “family can leave you as well as friends”. 

People described several ways depression further challenged family ties. Some people chose to hide their suffering from parents and other family members so that they would not worry, and ended up feeling distant as a result. As Tia put it, when her depression was at its worst she “didn’t want to share that feeling… with my family because of I didn’t want them to worry, but my friends I kind of told them.”
 

For Jason, being close to his family helped buffer his depression, but also magnified his suffering when he could not be more open with them.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 22
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I think one of the reasons why I haven’t felt suicidal, for example, like, I know people who’ve been unfortunate to feel those ways. I think I’m very close to my family, so I feel like the hurt that I think it’s going to cause them, you know, has basically precluded this possibility, at least for me. But I think on the, on the negative side, I think not being able to share with them. I mean, first of all, you’re always hiding something, right? And I think they don’t understand you enough. So, let’s say when I remember I told you that I, at the end of last year was when I was very depressed. Then I went back home. So, when I stayed with and quarreled my parents, you know, I think a lot of it was I was still depressed and in a bad state. But then, I can be telling them, you know, “Leave me alone.” Like, you know, “You’re making me really. Whatever you say is causing me a lot of distress. Not because I’m, you know, antsy. I’m being unreasonable. But, you know, I think it’s because I’m depressed.” And it’s, you know, it’s hard right. You can’t tell them. For me, I choose not to tell them and I suffer as well.
Many people described a need to “distance” themselves from others when they felt most depressed. As Kate put it “I tend to push people away in different manners so that when I actually reach the low point of my cycle, I can just do it alone.” But since teenagers have little capacity to put distance between themselves and others living in the family home, conflict often resulted.
 

Tensions from depression during Violet’s teen years had strained some and torn other family bonds.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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My depression has affected my relationships with other members of my family for sure. My specifically my mother and my sister because there are periods of time especially in high school when I was using drugs that my mood swings were all over the place, it was very unpredictable and I’m pretty sure I was actually probably nasty. I was just very, I was angry, I was mean, I couldn’t see anyone else’s point of view, I was probably very selfish. So I am sure that my depression and mental instability, contributed to that and I’m sure that them not knowing really what was going on, you know I’m sure they blame me for that. Our relationship has severely deteriorated over the years my sister and I don’t speak what-so-ever anymore.

My mom and I do still speak but I think there’s a lot of grudge there. You know I don’t know if we’ll ever truly forgive each other for you know things that were said, you know. And I do think that that boils down to the fact that I was miserable and I wasn’t getting help and I didn’t really know what was going on.
 

Elizabeth found that her adolescent depression caused lasting damage to her family ties.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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The depression had an unbelievably deep and strong impact on every single relationship in my life. My relationship with my mother at the time was awful, embarrassing, terrible. We would scream at each other constantly she would say black I would say white, it was one of those relationships. And she was going through some of her own issues at the time, she was going through menopause at the time too so I was dealing with some hormonal issues and so was she, so we didn’t get along that great. Yeah it was actually really terrible.
Some people described family relationships strained by constant worry, uncertainty and emotional instability. In Pete’s words: “I’ve been getting the sense that my family are kind of tired of [my depression]”. People also described how the passage of time and increased maturity could heal or begin to heal these ruptures.
 

A new generation helped restore Pete’s family connections and self-esteem.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
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Well with my nephew and niece specifically, the love that they have for me is unconditional and it's shown every time I see them how much I am needed by them, how much they love me, how much they want me to be around them, how they get when I'm leaving and they get upset. Like being around them and being known that I am so important to them makes me feel better about myself. It makes me feel like I am not as bad of a person as I think.
 

For Colin, depression eroded even the most loving family relationships, but over time they began to recover.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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With my mother our relationship became very, we used to have a good relationship and being home and her being worried about me made it a lot rockier. She was very worried about me all the time and would just, we couldn’t have any normal conversations anymore, like we used to, it would all be, like. That’s another thing I have described in therapy like with my mom, she would ask like, “How I am doing?” And like, “Are you ok?” But every time I would try to give a legitimate answer, she would just change the subject, like she didn’t want to hear it, she was just. If I told her I was feeling, how bad I was feeling I think I remember one time I specifically told her how depressed I actually was. After that instead of asking me more often, she actually just stopped asking how I was, because I think she was scared. Our relationship became really really weakened by it actually. It’s a lot better now though.
Friendships and peers

Friends are an easier source of support and understanding than family for many people. Long-time friendships can mimic the reliability of family relationships in a helpful way. Megan, for example, talked about two long-time friends who were “always there to talk to me and always supported me” as reliably as any family. 

A number of people described wishing for friends whose lives seemed happier, more stable and more “on track” than their own. As Jeremy put it, “I like being around happy people; their energy is always appreciated.” (See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’). But these types of friendships often felt hard to manage while dealing with depression. Sophie says she had friends who didn’t know how to react to her depression, “…and they would distance themselves and I would be kind of confused and sometimes that made it worse of course because they wouldn’t talk to me anymore and it’s because I didn’t know how to deal with either so I don’t blame them but it was hard.”
 

As she grew older, Whitney found it harder to hide the ways in which her depression had delayed her from getting what her friends had already achieved.

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Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 9
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I still don’t have a lot of friends, like I cut everybody out and you know I’m so far behind a lot people. It’s embarrassing to go out with other people because I don’t have the money. I don’t have a house, I don’t, not always able to afford things. So it’s hard for me I mean I feel like everybody just looks down on me, so I just stay home and hide away. And there’s a lot of my friends who have actually been accepting of my issues.
 

Elizabeth worried about losing her friends if she revealed her depression.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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Many of my friends at the time didn’t have a clear grasp on what I was going through, they definitely knew that something was not quite right, but I never really talked about it or opened up about it because I was embarrassed and thought I would lose them as friends so I didn’t really speak about it much. 
 

When Jackson went public with depression, friends pressured him to take medication.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 14
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“Oh that's too bad. OK, now this is becoming awkward. OK now you need to go on medication because it's making me uncomfortable." And-and so like one of my best friends in college -- we're not friends anymore but, like she-- like often pressured me to get on medication because I made- it made her uncomfortable for me to sad in front of her. Not projecting but sad in front of her. And I understand that's really hard. It's really hard to be around someone that you're not sure how to help.
In the face of these challenges, some young people with depression sought out friends with whom they felt more in common -- people whose own lives were in a “lull” or who, in Nadina’s words “have similar feelings like I do, like feelings of inadequacy and feeling like they’re never good enough.” These friends required less pretense, and seemed more trustworthy because they had shared struggles. But such friendships carried their own challenges, since they also proved more unstable.
 

Maya’s most trusted friends were those who shared her struggle with mental illness.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I sort of hung out with the, sort of like, the free thinker, misfit, creator types. There’s actually just like a dorm where it’s sort of like all of those kids, so you just take all of like the musicians and the drama kids and the gay kids and we’re just like one dorm [laughter]. And I hung out with mostly kids that just hung out in that dorm. So I want to say that mental health issues is almost a given with almost everybody I know, the severity and the variety is very different. A lot of people just have, I don’t want to say just have, because it can be debilitating, but a lot of people have like a couple things like OCD, but it doesn’t seriously impair their function, they’re just kind of quirky. Other people have had very serious psychotic breaks that have seriously impaired their lives. I have many friends who have been hospitalized for mental health reasons many times. So I don’t imagine that anyone didn’t know I had depressions, it’s just something that all of us dealt with. In fact, I have had conversations with people who are like, “You know, I don’t really trust anyone who has never been through really dark periods.
 

Kate befriends people with depression, but finds these relationships somewhat fragile.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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A lot of the people that I live with also the same illness, and the people that I'm friends with have the same illness. So I am also dealing with them trying to push me away, as-as I'm doing my own pushing other people away as well. And it's hard to sometimes even take into account, okay this person is struggling in a very similar way that I am. I've got to give them a break. And it's hard for others to give me a break because I am so consistently, you know, positive and supportive and all that. And then when I'm not, it's kind of a shock. And it's frustrating or-or exhausting to feel responsible in that way. To-to have to consistently be that way because I'm not a lot of the time.
Intimate partnerships and self-understanding

People described their relationships with primary partners as sharing some features of friendships, and some of family. However, the stakes are often higher. On the upside, intimate partners can be the mirrors through which young people more clearly see themselves and their mental health. On the downside, the ending of romantic relationships can feel traumatic; many of the people we talked to described how these endings triggered or deepened their depression.

Intimate relationships are characterized, at least in part, by close proximity. But such closeness poses challenges when depression dramatically alters moods. As Kate noted, “When I am in a relationship, I might not be consistently talking to them or I might not be consistent in the way that I approach them …. There’s a lot of patience I need from them.” The need for patience extends to sexual intimacy too, because those suffering from depression may be “the type of person that can switch from normal and everything’s great and then all of a sudden you have no desire what so-ever.” Several people talked about how their mood swings made it crucial to tell partners about depression so as to avoid misunderstandings and tensions so deep that they threatened the relationship.
 

Elizabeth says the relationship she had when most depressed suffered greatly because at the time she could not talk about her depression.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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A big, big factor in that relationship ending was the fact that I was so depressed and I couldn’t talk about it at all. And I remember one day going to his house and laying on the bed and I was just sobbing, uncontrollably crying, and I remember him rubbing my back and like, begging me to tell him what was wrong and I just couldn’t talk and you don’t get too far in life when you don’t talk about things, so that was difficult because I felt like it was my fault like I ruined the relationship, like I pushed him away. 
 

Sally did eventually tell her partner about her depression and the relationship survived, but she wished she had told him sooner.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I remember when me and my boyfriend first started dating. God, it was a long time ago, it was like 4 years ago now. I was like feeling, I, I just finished college and everything was like so great. You know college was so crazy busy and I was always doing something like every day, every hour just so busy and I graduated and I had a line up for a job, but I didn’t start for like another month. So I just went from like super busy to just absolutely nothing and I got so depressed just like didn’t want to do anything, just stayed in the house all day and like I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t have any money, and like, I lost interest in like, sexual activity and I didn’t want really. I wanted him around but I didn’t really know what to say and I was just very distant. And he like got to the point of almost leaving me because he had no idea why I was like, all of a sudden so distant and like changed my attitude toward him and he said like, I can’t remember what like the wording he said it was something about like “You’re a different person now. Like what happened, what did I do?” Stuff like that. I remember like, we would, you know like have sex and stuff and I would just be there, but not really there. It was kind of just very bland and I was kind of just like dead with no emotion at all and like he would notice obviously. It’s not something that you know, you just see someone and they’re normally one way and then all of a sudden like snap your fingers and they are completely opposite but. So we got into like a lot of issues about that at the time and so he almost left. So like, that would have been horrible and now four years later we are like, living together. But yeah, so like talking about the symptoms and like things that could happen probably are better to do beforehand rather than have it come up. 

And he didn’t know about your depression at all before that? 

No, it was too new. You know, it was like, way too personal of a thing to tell someone that. We were dating for, I don’t know, I guess like 2 or 3 months. So yeah, we saw each other most, you know, a few days a week and you know, he would spend the night and stuff, but it was very like new. So it’s not something that you want to like air your, I don’t want to say dirty laundry but like, you know the negative things about yourself to someone you are trying to impress. So, you know, proceed with caution I guess, have to kind of tread lightly with that kind of stuff. That’s kind of where it came from, I guess. 

Yeah, so if you were advising someone else you would say, on the one hand, be a little cautious but don’t let it go too far before you tell somebody you were close to?

Yeah, at least like give them some hint or some, I don’t know, anything, say anything about it but don’t just leave it in the air, just act like you’re perfect. Because no one is perfect and like, you know, if you have diabetes you wouldn’t be embarrassed about it, but you know, everyone is a more of a stigma with depression but you know, you definitely have to say something if you’re the type of person that can switch from normal and everything’s great and then all of a sudden you have no desire what so-ever. 
People with partners who also experience depression or other kinds of mental illness had a variety of experiences with these relationships. On the one hand, partners with mental illness could be most understanding and helpful in dealing with depression’s debilitating symptoms. Sara, for example, described how her partner who also struggles with depression “understands when I just want to cry. He understands I don’t want to talk about it; I can just cry”. On the other hand, people described how relationships with depressed partners could exacerbate depressive symptoms, trapping both partners in a cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that for some felt “extremely toxic”. As Julia put it, having a depressed boyfriend put her “… in the role of caretaker or caregiver. You know like I had to give him everything and he wasn’t in a place where he could give me anything. And, once again, like that distracted me from dealing with my stuff.”
 

A partner who also struggled with emotional problems offered Leanna a source of understanding, support and insight

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I told him about that shortly like before we got engaged. I just let him know like I have these mood swings, I have these, you know, certain things about me that if you’re going, if we’re going to be married and we’re going to live together, you’re going to need to know this. We’re probably going to have some problems here and there that we’re going to have to work through and he understands. He actually has PTSD too, but from, from Afghanistan, so it’s a different. It’s a whole different. We actually help each other. In a way you think that wouldn’t work out, it would be like, too like butting heads and stuff but we actually find a way to help each other out with it and work through it together because we can tell when we’re triggering each other and that’s when we just leave each other alone, let it cool down and stuff and work through it together. 
 

Having a partner struggling with mental health issues worsened Sam’s negativity about himself.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I was dating this girl who was extremely visibly broken from the abusive environment in which she was raised. So, I would think to myself, yes, of course, I do need to be there for her six, seven hours a day on Skype because, like, otherwise, how is she going to function in the world? Which stemmed from another way it could have manifested itself, which is the sense of I need to give and give and give and give and give because that is what my value in the world is. But it was also, in a way, very controlling. The sense of, like, I am the one who will take care of this person. It is on me, no one else can do it. Which leads to a lot of stress because that is not a stable way to have a relationship. It leads to feelings of anger and resentment that you are being taken advantage of even if you put yourself in the situation in which you allow yourself to be taken advantage of. It leads to feelings of worry because you've made another person's problems your problems, but, ultimately, it's on the other person to take care of their problems, and if they're not doing it, there's no way you can make them. And it can lead to this, all of those bad feelings and unhealthy ways of viewing oneself can lead to this sense of feeling my depression, feeling like everything is hopeless, feeling like your best efforts are not good enough, feeling like you don't have any value, feeling like you are worthless.
 

Having a partner who was depressed was hard for Violet, but it also made her address how depression affected her own relationships with others.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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It really was not good to have two people who were struggling with the very, the same issues the very you know dark, depressing issues, it was not a good thing to have two people together that way. And once I made an effort that I didn’t want that for my life anymore it became even more apparent how dark and deep his own issues were so the contrast of that really pushed me forward, it pushed me into positivity, I could see from a more unbiased standpoint his actions and I said “I don’t want to be anything like that, you know I see now how I’ve been treating people I see now how negative I’ve been, how much this does affect me, it does affect my happiness, it does affect my family members.” 
See also ‘Depression and feeling different when young’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’.
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