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

Depression, spirituality, and faith

For young adults, depression can feel like a “shroud of darkness” threatening to engulf the future. Recognizing that depression ebbs and flows over time offers one beacon of hope. For some people we interviewed, religion or spirituality offered another. In Tia’s words, “faith got me through” and she realized that depression “is a part of life that others have went through it.” Other people felt that religion worsened the impact of depression by impinging on their emerging identity or delaying access to treatment. Still others found that the search for their own beliefs after leaving their parents’ faith was difficult, and heightened the absence of purpose they already felt in connection with depression. 

Religion and faith can ease the impact of depression

Some young adults said faith gave them strength to go on even when depression sapped their will. Some looked to their spiritual beliefs to sustain hope, when depression made the future seem bleak. Some – even if they are not themselves religious -- found they were unconditionally accepted in communities of faith in unique ways. These experiences did not appear to be influenced by whether people were connected to conventional religious practices or more eclectic spiritual ones.

Many people talked about drawing on faith as a reservoir of strength during their struggles with depression. Leanna recalled that when she is in the depths of depression, she prays to the spirit of the earth to “like please help me and that usually slowly gets me out of there.” Others drew on varied faiths in their darkest moments or as they contemplated what the future might bring.
 

Elizabeth relied on her faith to help her tackle each day, even when depression left her feeling frail.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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Ultimately my upbringing with the religion did really help me get through my depression because even when I struggled a lot, I always got out of bed, I always went to school, I always went to work, I never hid from life and I think that a lot of that was what I was taught through my faith. You know, you still try, you still get up, you still do it and it gave me persistence. I think it made me work hard and I think that ultimately it gave me courage to face some of the things that I was going through and it gave me the strength to feel like I could do it. 
 

For Marty, belief in God offered a reservoir of strength to which he could turn in darkest times.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 11
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I put my belief in God and started listening to God, because God granted us free will, so he’s not going to go, I believe he’s not going to go and control me I used to say that I believe, let me rephrase that. I believe he’s assisted me in helping me over my depression and shown me a path of the righteous, you know, of being able to get out of the hole of depression and anxiety. 
 
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Buddhism provided for Mara the resilience to persevere, despite anticipating that depression might persist for her entire life.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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A lot of what I have learned through, like these meditative practices and, and sort of like the central philosophy behind all of it is that, suffering is brought on by aversion or by desire. So if you, if you want something you’re not always going to be able to get them, and if you don’t want something you aren’t always going to be able to escape them [coughing], excuse me, so the idea is to get rid of aversion and to get rid of desire so you can be simply by yourself and not, not need material things not need relationships in order to be ok with yourself. So for me, sort of like bringing that back to a lot of, like my experiences with depression and anxiety was just the idea that, like well no I don’t think I will ever be able to escape like problems I’ve had with my mom or just like difficulties I’ve had making friends or like problems I’ve had in the past or that I will have in the future, but just accepting that these things are going to come and go. And it’s up to me, up to me as an individual or people as individuals to decide how they are going to feel about that and so you might say, well depression is a disease and you can’t, you can’t choose whether or not to have depression which is absolutely true, you are not going to be able to make those choices, but I think it’s your choice to empower yourself with the knowledge, “I have depression. I am going to feel a certain way about things and that is totally ok. But also understanding that you are very much like a mountain and these things that come and go and pass are kind of like clouds, you don’t change around them. 
Some young adults described how religiously-observant people around them were particularly attentive, empathic and understanding towards others – and therefore a reliable source of support.
 
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Maya found unconditional acceptance in religious community.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 15
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I go to a Baptist church on Sundays because this preacher is just phenomenal, he is such a gifted orator, he really touches you at, at the heart and soul and I have really never felt so welcome and so much like I belong as I do when I go to this church and the music is incredible and the people are just wonderful. I mean like I literally can’t count how many hugs I get there just, just for showing up and people are really genuine and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.” And it’s so, it’s so wonderful, you know, sort of have that space because there are people laughing, there are people dancing, and there are people weeping, you know, whatever you bring to the table, whatever sort of thing that you’re feeling you can feel it there and it’s a place where people are able to feel pain and I think that’s something fairly rare, especially if you are in sort of more of the, like the white American culture where I, where I tend to reside most of my time. There isn’t a lot of expressiveness and there isn’t a lot of safe space to sort of express these emotions beyond this really narrow range, but I find that at this church there, you can play all the notes.
 

After Colin’s father became more religious, Colin felt less judged and more accepted by him.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
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The one positive experience I’ve had with religion was probably maybe three years ago. My father had this big spiritual overhaul, kind of like a new born Christian and it made him a much nicer person. 

Like I don’t adhere to any beliefs myself, but all I can say is it really softened him a lot and he’s a lot nicer than he used to be. After having this and doing things I would never see him doing. He like goes to bible meetings and group sessions and he leads this men’s group now.

Stuff I would never have associated with my father. But he’s a much more, he’s not gentle he’s still fairly a hard stoic man, but he’s a lot more easy to communicate with and he doesn’t feel as judgmental as he used to. 
Some people also said spiritual beliefs helped them find direction that transcends depression’s impact. As Sierra Rose noted, “It helps to think that there is something bigger out there, that there is some purpose to all of this.” Jason, who is not religious, wondered “If I had, you know, a sense of faith and religion, maybe that could have made things better.” Sally saw how faith helped family members also struggling with depression, and observed that it “gives them a lot of hope” that they “wouldn’t otherwise have had”. 

Religion can make depression harder

Religion worsened depression’s toll for some people. Most often, this was because as they grew older, they moved away from their parents’ religion – and then struggled with feeling alienated or distant from devout family members, which compounded their depression. Whitney said her parents forced her to “participate and learn, study the Bible and it was just, it was a lot for me and it just sent me into this depression again cause… this isn’t what I believe in and it’s just… being forced down my throat.” One participant said that during high school she became “very angry with god” and “couldn’t deal with religion” – but then also “couldn’t deal with my family” and “couldn’t deal with anything.”
 

When Natasha could no longer follow her parents’ faith, it created a rift that intensified her depression.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I was brought up like, what is the specific term? Some sort of Christian, like a small group of Christian and sometime during early high school I started to like not identify with those values but my parents were still making me go to church so I had a sort of antagonistic relationship with religion for a while . Now it’s sort of, I don’t know, agnostic I guess. I don’t really know but I don’t know but I can’t say that it doesn’t exists because I don’t know so I think it’s only an interacting thing with my depression as my parents are concerned because they’re super religious and I’m not so not being able to relate to them on that level, yeah. It’s sort of depressing at times. 
 

When Sam began to question his parent’s religion, he grew more distant from them while also struggling with growing fears about what the future might bring.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I believe that each individual constructs their own sense of purpose and meaning of life, constructs their own system by which they judge themselves to be valuable or not valuable. I absolutely think that religious faith can be an appropriate and healthy and good and beneficial way in which someone can construct their view of the world and of themselves. I also think that it is possible for religious faith, like any framework of looking at the world, to be unhealthy or destructive or negative. 

Around age 14, I went through an experience that made me question my devotion to the Christian faith, and, ultimately, I decided that I no longer believed in the tenants of the religion I was raised in, and that was when my first bout of depression had lasted many, many months occurred, due to a variety of reasons: The stress of having to conceal what I knew my parents would not approve of from my family and from the rest of my community; my nagging fear of what if I'm wrong, what if I go to hell, I don't want to go to hell, which is a thing that tends to make people uncomfortable. And along with that just the typical growing pains of adolescence of, you know, I was raised to believe the world is, I wasn't raised to believe that. I grew up thinking that the world is very safe and secure place and I'm now starting to sense that in some cases it is, in some cases it is not. Magnified, in my typical the case, by the extremity of the stakes that had been attached to my religious beliefs. 
Myra and Sam both said their parents viewed increased spiritual commitment as the appropriate first response to emotional distress; since medical treatment was seen as a last resort, it was not sought in a timely way. Myra observed that in her religious community, mental health was recently starting to be more openly acknowledged for the first time.
 
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Because his parents favored religious over psychological counseling, Sam’s depression wasn’t diagnosed until after he’d moved away from home.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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My parents decided the seek alternative religious counseling instead, and my religious counselor was similarly disinclined to diagnose me with depression but, rather, to diagnose me with being sinful which was a whole can of worms, but. Yeah. I didn't really arrive at the conclusion myself that I was depressed until that summer after my first year of college in which it was pretty hard to deny, in which I was not leaving my apartment for sometimes days on end.
 

Myra was relieved when she observed her church begin to acknowledge depression and regard it as an issue that required medical treatment.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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I notice that, that people didn't really start acknowledging depression until I was maybe 18. That, that was the same time that I found the whole [inaudible] and everything. And I kind of think the 2 are related because that's when I noticed a general acceptance of depression rather than just being like, you ain't depressed about nothing. All you got to do is pray and find your joy in the Lord and yada, yada, yada. Our church choir had a song about that, let's see, I don't remember the name of it, but the lyrics were, "I almost let go. I felt like I just couldn't take life anymore". I don't remember the lyrics after that, but that was like the first acknowledgement of depression in the church that I'd ever heard of. And it's like whoa, they actually think this is an illness. They actually realize that this probably isn't something that you can just pray away, you know?
Most children grow up in their parents’ religion, but as they grow older many begin to explore, as independent people, what feels right for them in the realm of faith. This transition can pose special challenges for those with depression. People we interviewed described a vacuum of meaning or purpose accompanying loss of or changes in their faith, and how this emptiness compounded their depression.
 

Separating from his parent’s faith posed challenges for Sam in retaining his sense of self-worth.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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I was instilled with the values of a person's purpose in life is to glorify and serve their divine creator, and if one is not able to do so, one's not doing anything valuable with one's life. Which I didn't completely grasp in those words when I was four or five years old, but I think sat with me and did, in some ways, that I no longer so feel the need to describe… I was not living my life in 100 percent devotion to my divine deity because I did not believe in this divine deity that caused this disconnect between what I felt like would make me, would give me value, and the actual value I was perceiving in myself.
People who felt their family’s religion created impossible expectations or just could not accommodate who they are described having a particularly difficult time. Natasha’s sense that her parent’s religion could never accept her sexual identity, for example, left her more depressed. In her words, “My parents were really like very Christian people and so it’s sort of, we don’t really mesh well with this aspect of my personality…. It didn’t really register to me that that was what was happening but then as I got to college I realized that that was getting me down a lot”.
 

When she was young, Violet’s religion led her to doubt herself, feelings that persist to this day.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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I grew up as a roman catholic I had when I was younger a very ingrained idea of sin. I do think that I no, I no longer practice anymore I don’t have any religious association, but when I was younger I very much used to guilt myself about “oh my gosh you yelled at your sister you did this terrible sin, I have to go confess,” you know it, it very much, I don’t know if it necessarily contributed to anything but I do think that the overall feeling of guilt leads to negative self-worth. It makes you feel like you aren’t doing well enough that you’re doing something wrong.
See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Having a purpose in life’.
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