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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.
 

For Maya, starting to do less well in high school was a sure warning sign that something was wrong.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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By the time I was in high school, I started having trouble just functioning. I was just breaking down sobbing all the time. I mean like, in a ball shaking and that would happen at school. And so I spent a great deal of time in the in the counselor’s office and around my sophomore year, I mean, I was I don’t know if it’s fair to say, intellectually suicidal. I wasn’t going to take any active steps, but I did have a lot of suicidal thinking and I had very clearly all the signs of depression to anyone who really cared to notice. 

And I tried to seek like help. I was just like, “I need to see a psychologist. Like, I’m having problems.” Because all of a sudden I had gone from being a straight A student or not a straight A student but an A/B student to, I went from having like having an 89 percent in my statistics class to having a 16, because I just wasn’t able to function.
 

Sophie’s depression sometimes overwhelmed her while in class.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I would start in certain classes I would just start I would get really sad but not even sad more like hopeless and I would just start crying just out of nowhere. And I would have to wait until the class was over or try to get the teacher’s attention without having anyone else notice that something was wrong with me. To just like let me leave the class so I could go find the guidance counselor or somebody to talk to. 
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.
 

School assignments provided a structure that helped Violet overcome the lost motivation that comes with depression.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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I think that the structure of school actually helps me, I personally have a personality that likes structure. I look for it. I look for routine. So that not only that but I very much, I like to be intellectually stimulated, I want to learn new things, I it actually genuinely brings me joy to learn about something that I don’t know about, not all classes are interesting but I do think that it has helped me, it’s given me something to focus on. It’s given me what did, what did my counselor say clear obtainable goals, you know that I will feel great about when I achieve and everyone needs something to work towards.
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 “
 

As his depression worsened, Jason found himself in a downward spiral, falling farther behind on assignments which made him even more depressed.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 22
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It’s not just about being sociable. It’s about becoming less functional, right? Like, say, losing, feeling like you have a poor short-term memory, feeling you have poor logical capabilities, or whatever. And I think it’s a self-reinforcing cycle that, you know, if 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.
 

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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.
 

Crystal was reluctant to get professional help because of cultural/familial stigma about mental illness but eventually did through her college in a way that was both confidential and affordable.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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And then going into spring semester that’s when kind of the real, the real traumatizing periods of high school came back. And I realized that you know, “Something is really wrong and I can’t so this on my own but I really don’t know who to talk to. And I don’t think I am brave enough to go seek help.” Because I was, because of how my family perceived getting help, you know therapy and mental illness I didn’t, I thought I’d be shaming them if I went to go seek help and this is a dangerous mentality to get into because if you, if you allow other people to influence your thoughts like that then it’s just it’s not a very good situation so. I really struggled through that semester and then over the summer that’s when I officially started, I had, I just happened to be taking summer classes and so that’s when I was able to seek help through my institution. Because it was, you know, affordable and available to me through you know, school health care plan. So and confidentiality is, confidentiality is you know greatly appreciated and everything so I was able to do that. And so to this day I still seek therapy from my institution and what’s nice about it you know my family for right now doesn’t need to know and I can try to help myself as I go through.
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.
 

Casey felt less alone when he got to college, where there was significant public discussion about mental illness.

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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So I went to like a very kind of like, progressive liberal arts school and there was a, a pretty large dialogue there surrounding like mental health and that like, it exists, and everyone has it, whether or not it’s going great, and that there’s a huge stigma around it and you should be able to talk about it. And I like, so I would like literally just like see posters about this. I knew people who talked about having mental illnesses and like things that like, things like I deal with but also things like I think probably way harder more than I deal with. And we’re like this doesn’t, you know, make me somehow like less than, or whatever this is, just like a thing that is in my life and I was kind of like hmm. And I never like looked at any of the student groups or whatever but I think it really changed the way that I thought about things just to be around kind of like that dialogue in the air almost.
 

Natasha found treatment readily available in college, but was disappointed that only the first few visits were free, since she was unable to afford additional treatment.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I like started realizing, oh this is probably a problem, I should talk to someone about it. So I went to the psychiatric center on campus and talked to them about it and the counselor there sort of gave me like a preliminary diagnosis thinking that I might have depression and also social anxiety disorder and he sent me to like a more licensed psychiatrist [Place name] and he formally diagnosed me. So yeah, since then I’ve been taking antidepressants and they’ve been working really well. 

I think it’s seven free sessions for you to sort of figure out what’s going on. and then after that you can’t really go anymore so that was a bit of an issue because at the time I couldn’t really afford to like get an off campus psychiatrist but like other than that like… talking with someone wasn’t very difficult. 
 

Once in college, the potential for building a career helped Mara deal with the loss of motivation she suffers when depressed.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Where in high school, sort of like, depression and anxiety were just this cocktail that totally like ruins, it just ruins your motivation and makes it really hard to get out of bed and to want to stay up and, and to stay active. While in college it’s been easier to use these things as kind of like a, a motivator. So in some ways just kind of nice to be able to say like, “Yes, I know I have these tendencies to shut down. Yes, I know I want to hide away, but if I 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.” 
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.
 
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When he first went away to college, Colin’s isolation made his depression harder to manage.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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I was very dead set on getting this chemistry degree and my Spanish degree. And that was kind of like plan A in my head. And, I didn't really have any plan B through C. It was just the only thing that I was really focused on. And then, I finally told myself that I couldn't do it if this is what it meant, because that's what it meant going through this kind of, this hating every day so much and just feeling like it was such a, such a draining, laborious process. So, I just, it caught me really quick. Like, even within the first week, it just, the underlying depression that I was feeling just really, it forcefully blew up into a really abysmal episode just, I was by myself at this point, living in my apartment. I wasn't seeing anybody I wasn't doing anything social really. And so, I felt very alone and just very scared. And, once I realized my plan A wasn't working, my mind just started going to those really dark places that it always used to where, oh, if plan A isn't working then what's the point, I guess. Just, couldn't think of any reason to keep going…
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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Violet reduced the pressure of college by going part-time.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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…it’s taken me you know 5 years because like I said once I recognized that I couldn’t, I couldn’t over work myself like that, I said “I’m going to take it easy”. And it took me longer but it’s done and I’m happier, you know, that I didn’t rush through it and I didn’t, you know, over work myself because that wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t making me happy to do so . I am going to continue school, my education, I’m going farther for my bachelors and I’m going to take it one or two classes at a time.
See also ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, ‘Depression and abuse’, ‘Depression and relationships’, and ‘Depression and everyday tasks.’
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