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

Depression and work

Many young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have not yet had time to develop a long or diverse work history, regardless of whether they are depressed. Nonetheless, most people we interviewed talked about the impact depression had on their experiences with work, and/or about how work influenced their depression. Some also described how and whether they “went public” with their depression in professional environments, or what role income (or its absence) played in their lives.

Work making depression easier

A number of people described how work functions as an effective antidote to feelings of isolation, powerlessness, or low self-esteem that accompany depression. For some, being busy with work and “having a routine” as well as needed income was a tremendous help: as Meghan put it, “busy people are organized people and [having a campus job] has helped a lot… just being committed to something [and]… having a schedule that I can maintain.” Other people talked about work as a “productive distraction” which provides relief from endlessly “thinking about how I’m feeling.” Marty used his job to practice “step[ping up] and being a leader.”
 

Joey says getting even a “crappy” job added necessary structure to his life and immediately made him less depressed.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 26
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… having a job, even like a crappy one. I kind of tire from jobs really quickly, but I mean I started working and it was like even after you know like, being on medication for six months and like doing really good, like feeling, feeling better I mean, got a job. The one thing I started working on was like just instant like overnight just like double how I felt about myself. Even, and it wasn’t anything in particular, you know, it was [Name]. I wasn’t like, you know, hey I’m going to go be a sales associate at [Name]. It was just like, leaving your house every day. Like, coming home after working four hours, having money that you actually earned that you know, you didn’t get from the government or your parents, like. 

Yeah.

It helps a lot, but yeah. Friends and like some sort of like, even if it’s like three hours a day. Some sort of work or something. 

I think, are at least for me, have been the most helpful in getting out of that rut.
 
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For Jacob, having a job creates a positive feedback loop: interacting with others lessens his depression, which in turn creates more motivation to excel at work, which lessens depression yet more.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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I got a job that I actually just like technologically speaking enjoy. I’ve always been in the soft, software engineering field, but now it’s a slightly more interesting branch for me. So that at least set me up for success and then, probably the constant evolution of me and my anxiety helps a lot, because I’m far more social and far more interactive than I was in past jobs, which makes my depression easier to deal with, which means I have more motivation, which means I can excel and excelling also combats my depression and so it just kind of feeds on itself.
A few people mentioned how the substantive focus of their work or the specific requirements of their job challenged them to move through symptoms of depression by making it necessary to “come out of my shell” or to be intensely “emotionally aware” of self and others. The opportunity that work creates to meet and spend time with other people was highlighted by several people as particularly meaningful.
 
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Colin’s job gives him the chance to be “part of something” with other people.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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The friends I met now I’ve met through my job, I work at a dining hall. I got promoted, I applied for the promotion, I’m a supervisor there.

And after that it was like the first time I’ve ever, since I’ve been in college that I’ve been like a part of something, like a group of people. And we have like these supervisor meetings and these, it’s kind of like, it’s like a club. 

And everybody there is so hard working and really admirable and I had jobs in the past that I felt were good hard working jobs as well. A lot of people haven’t had experience with that, like hard work, which is something my parents really tried to instill in me and that I really respect and I found, I found a lot of hard working people out there and I’m really drawn towards them. And yeah I met one really good friend through work this, just this year and like probably four or five others that are still pretty good, I maybe hang out with them once a week and it’s always the highlight of my week. 
Several people emphasized that earning money was a good motivator for them, and that having an income solved other problems in their lives such as tensions with partners about money.

Depression making work harder

Work was described by many people as a substantial or even overwhelming challenge. For some, depression and related issues made the daily stress and pressure of a job hard to manage. Getting up and out of the house can be a substantial barrier in and of itself: as Sam summarized, “I was consistently calling out because I was not able to get myself up in the morning to go to work.” Pete said depression makes it hard for him to focus and multitask as he is required to do at work. Colin recalled that when he was in a bad phase he “just couldn’t keep up” with demands on the job.
 
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Ben says depression combined with several other problems made it difficult for him to work.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
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What, how does your mental illness make it hard?

Just my interactions with coworkers might be a little bit inappropriate just, not inappropriate but I might come off aggressively or might scare people or I might like talk to myself and people might think I’m weird or get a little bit worried or concerned and it, it was just hard to deal with. And now, and there were time when I was homeless and I wasn’t taking showers, like I said before and. It, it was very, substance abuse, depression, homelessness, taking on meds, off meds, taking different meds and isolation, depressed, you know lacking friends, lacking companionship. You know just, just a lot of stuff going on… 
A number of people described losing jobs because depression made it too hard to continue. Casey’s job as a canvasser required him to be “energetic,” and he couldn’t sustain it through a downward spiral of his depression. Several others also described losing jobs because of poor attendance.
 

Sierra Rose says depression makes it hard to hold down a job.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
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When the depression would kick in , I’d stop caring as much about my job, I figure, “Well what’s the point of it? I’m just a low class American anyway.” I would stop smiling all the time. I’d start brooding.

It makes it extremely hard to hold down a job because I’ll get a job and I’ll be doing great. I’ll be ok and then the depression is like, “Wait you’re happy? No you’re not allowed to be happy.” And it draws me back down into being depressed and then I lose my job because, “Oh, you’re not who you told us you were when we interviewed you. You’re not who you were when we hired you.” It makes it extremely hard to have relationships, to keep a job to do anything…
(To learn more about the difficulty of performing day to day tasks, see ‘Depression and everyday tasks’.)

Unemployment and depression

Having a job is challenging for some depressed young adults, but lacking one can also be stressful or make symptoms of depression worse. Most talked about struggling with low self-esteem and too little structure in life when they didn’t have or couldn’t find a job. For several, transitions between jobs or between school and work triggered painful episodes of worsened depression.
 

Ben’s mental health and substance abuse struggles contributed to his losing a steady job, and then unemployment made his depression worse.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
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…right now I just really need a job. I really, but I get distracted, but I really, I think that’s why I’m losing my mind right now. I’m really depressed because right now, right now at the current time, I think that’s the biggest problem right now, it could be the biggest problem that I’m unemployed. And I have too much free time and I’m actually in jeopardy of like triggering a relapse because you know when you have so much free time you contemplate your thoughts and sometimes you can think negative thoughts and then you can be self-destructive when you have too much free time…

… for over 7 months I have been clean now, but now I have not been able to find employment. And, and that’s, that’s making me depressed because I have nothing to do. I don’t like I’m not, I was a productive, productive member of society and I was working and now I feel very depressed because I don’t have a job and I want to go back to work and do something and make some money.
 

Elizabeth’s depression returned after a five-year gap. When she finished college and applied for jobs every rejected application made her feel like a failure.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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By the time that I had got the job that I am currently at I applied to 76 jobs. And again I felt like a failure, I felt like, “Oh my gosh I just spent five years in school busting my hump for something I thought I would never have accomplished and I can’t even get a job.” And something just chemically goes wrong at those moments and I stopped eating, I didn’t shower much, I didn’t really talk to many people and I just really shut down. And I remember calling my therapist and saying you know, “I know we are not scheduled for a week, but I would really like to see you.” And I literally just sat in her office and stared at the floor and cried for most of the 50 minutes. And that’s a woman that I had been seeing for about five years at that point and I really couldn’t say a word. So something you know, that’s one of those moments, where I was doing well and great and something just happens and it brings you back…
Stigma, masking and work

A number of people talked about whether or not to “go public” with their depression at work. (See also ‘Going public with depression?’) Some worried that their history of depression might “negatively impact” career paths or that unmasking to anyone in a professional environment would create the impression of being “weak or crazy.” Others felt safe talking with employers about some aspects of their depression: Joey, for example, said he “wasn’t so specific when I told them at work,” but he did mention going through a “rough patch.” Mara and Sally both spoke about the importance of maintaining their appearance at work and hiding any physical evidence of depression or other mental health issues.
 

Kate is learning to be more open about who she is, but she is still not ready to reveal anything about her depression or anxiety at work.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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… when I was in high school and I still had that kind of disconnect between what I wanted other people to think me of, think of me as, and what I thought of me as [cough]. Very few people got to see what I viewed as my weakness of being very self-conscious, being very self-critical. And now as I approach people I'm a bit more whole because the mask that I have is a bit closer to who I actually am. But I do still keep a lot of things that I perceive as weaknesses very close to my chest. So, you know, a lot of people could probably guess that I have depression, anxiety, and what have you. But I wouldn't really be very open about that, especially in some kind of professional environment. They don't really need to know that about me. I’m fine with not telling them.
 

Jacob says his employer is pretty supportive when it comes to mental health issues, and he thinks there is less stigma in other workplaces too.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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There is much less of a stigma now I would say which is fantastic. I feel like a lot more people are seeking help. I my company in particular I know people who have actually taken medical leave for it. Things just get overwhelming and they need some time off. They’re not as affected by work anymore, because of it, they take a couple of weeks to recover. So there is absolutely more support for the condition than used to be. And I think just in general socially people are a lot more willing myself included to talk about it.
See also ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, and ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life.'
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