There is no single way that first experiences with depression unfold. People we interviewed described how, when and where their depression began in a variety of ways. In the United States, the average age when depression begins is 32*. However, depression is also common in younger age groups, with an estimated 10% of adolescents reporting depression within the past year*. Of the young adults we interviewed many began to feel depressed either in childhood, or (most commonly) as teenagers. Some people did not have significant experiences with depression until they were in their twenties.
How depression begins
Some of those interviewed had no memory of their depression emerging because, as Sierra Rose put it, “it’s always been there.” A couple of people could not say when or how their depression began. Most, however, described a particular period of time, event, or significant change in emotions they could clearly link with first memories of feeling depressed. For example, Teri said in late high school she noticed she “quit caring about things,” and Crystal says in middle school she began to feel flat, unengaged, and “wanting to be in my sadness.” Some people talked about depression setting in when they got to college, or how “everything just seemed amplified, like… small things would really get to me”. For Jacob, depression began with “just a chronic sort of dissatisfaction” that he thought at first maybe everyone feels.
Ok, I think that I have felt different than a lot of my peers for almost as long as I can remember. Even in young childhood everyone was very happy and go lucky and I had this, not that I didn’t have moments of happiness but I always had this gnawing, underlying sense of sadness. There was, I always had these very deep darker thoughts and when I would ask, you know, friends that were my age whether they had ever thought about that, the thought had never you know crossed their mind. And I found that so odd. Why do I feel this way when nobody else does? Nobody else has ever even had the concept of that before.
Age at diagnosis: 22
Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.Click here to view Violet's profile page
I’ve been living with depression on and off since I was eight years old, I’m 22 now. Of course at age eight, I didn’t think of it in terms of depression or mental illness or anything of that nature, but I recall at that age spending many nights lying awake in bed feeling this kind of gnawing emotional pain without a readily identifiable cause. At the time, I framed it in terms of feeling vaguely empty inside and not knowing why. My parents suggested, like, maybe you’re hungry or you have a stomachache or something like that. And, at the time, as this went on, I thought of it primarily in religious terms because I was raised in a very conservative religious house. I thought that I was not pleasing God or God was not happy with me or something of that nature, and I wasn’t sure what to do about those feelings, so I just kind of tamped them down, and that happened on and off throughout my early childhood.
Age at diagnosis: 19
Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.Click here to view Sam's profile page
People described a number of specific ways they knew something was wrong such as feeling suicidal at an early age, or first becoming depressed after a break-up or difficult family event. Others spoke about feeling angry, irritable or guilty; finding they were no longer able to feel pleasure; or withdrawing from friends and growing isolated.
…when I was a junior, something just clicked and I just became very irritable and everything just seemed to bother me and I just had a negative outlook on life and just everything was hard for me to do. And I just approached things in such a negative way and I didn’t know what was going on and people were noticing that my personality had changed and I didn’t know what was going on, other people didn’t know what was going on, people thought that I was just being rude or kind of arrogant and it wasn’t until later that I discovered that I did have depression and it’s been a long journey but I progressed and it got to the point where I dealt with that for about a year, just like, just didn’t feel like myself and struggled with daily things, but it was manageable and bearable and I got through that, but I never really reached out for help and I never really put too much thought to it. I just kind of thought that my life was speeding up and things were changing and that’s just how it was, that was what was going on. So within the next year and a half it just progressed and got more serious to the point where I, I felt ashamed of the way that I had really secluded myself from others and I was not as outgoing as I had been. I didn’t feel really welcome in my school environment and I just and it was just all in my head. It was not that anything had ever happened to me it was just all of a sudden something in my, something in my mind just decided to go wacky and it, it really started to become a problem my senior year in high school.
Age at diagnosis: 18
Background: Meghan is a college student and has a job on campus. She is Caucasian.Click here to view Meghan's profile page
Ok I was pretty young like 14 or 15.
It just kind of started as losing a lot of my interests. I used to be, when I was really young I did a lot of art. A lot of music and actually enjoyed things [laughter].
And then all of a sudden I just stopped everything at first it was neutral and then I realized I didn’t enjoy anything and then it just got to the point where over time I would have periods which I hated everything [laughter]. I would just wake up and just couldn’t find any reason or purpose in the day whatsoever and it was pretty early when I started just getting consistent suicidal thoughts, for no apparent reason and I felt so guilty for it because like I had good parents, good family besides some of the minor issues that everybody has with their family.
Age at diagnosis: 18
Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.Click here to view Colin's profile page
A number of people realized only in retrospect that they had been depressed for a long time without knowing it. Some said that when they started to feel bad they just “didn’t understand what it was” and were not yet familiar with the term “depression.” Others thought what they were experiencing was just “a typical thing” connected to growing up. Pete, for example, says when he was a child he “just saw it as me having a bad few days,” but he now realizes he has been depressed for a long time.
Ok. So I think I was about 13 when it first started, I didn’t really understand what it was. I just knew that I felt like crap. I didn’t, I didn’t understand what it was, it felt like there was just a black cloud over my head, sort of. And it was just, it sort of felt like there was a weight I was carrying around all the time. I didn’t really understand it. And I didn’t, I don’t know if I even heard the word depression until my parents took me to the doctor once and just talked to the doctor about how I was acting out and I, I was disagreeable a lot and wouldn’t do things that they wanted me to do, like clean my room and the doctor brought it up. Like, “Oh, this actually could be depression.”
Age at diagnosis: 13
Background: Frankie works fulltime in customer service and lives with her husband. She takes antidepressants is not in therapy. Ethnic background is Caucasian.Click here to view Frankie's profile page
Role of parents and caregivers
Young adults with depression are likely to have begun experiencing symptoms when they were still at home with their parents or other caregivers. For many, these adults in the childhood home played a key role noticing that something was amiss and taking steps to get help. For others, such adults made things more difficult.
Several of the people we interviewed had parents who are mental health professions. As Shayne said, her parents could “recognize [depression] right away” and make an appointment with a doctor or therapist. A number of other parents contacted their child’s school counselor or psychologist as a first step. Meghan said her mom was the first person to whom she was able to open up and confide; Casey is grateful his parents have helped with therapy. Siblings, grandparents, intimate partners, and other important adults were also helpful to a number of people.
Yeah, I mean, it must have been pretty bad because we do not live in the same city. And so they were just hearing it over the phone. I think that just, you know, through the years of like conversations like at some point I’m just like, yeah. Yep. Ok. And yeah, like I think my dad was the first person to mention something and it was like, you sound miserable. You sound horrible and I was like, nah, whatever. And it was like, yeah a couple of conversations he kept bringing it up and I was like, at one point I was like, “damn!,” I mean, it’s not even like misery it’s like I’m just, there’s nothing and like there, like, there’s just nothing to care about.
… and then I went up and saw all of them for like, some Halloween thing. I don’t know. It, I had a discussion about it and it just seemed like a good idea and it was nice to see that I actually like had family support on this and it just seemed like, you know, I was like if I talked to somebody and this didn’t seem like it was a good idea, it’s like I could always quit at any point and I don’t know, just lack of options. It was like, yeah. Like I said earlier, it was like anything is better than this. Even like a, like even feeling like worse or bad or worse in a different way, like anything would have been better than just like, I don’t know. Like, nothing but like an annoying or I don’t know, like. You’ve got, like the most uncomfortable nothing.
Yeah. How did you, in the midst of that nothingness actually get yourself to make that first call and look up that person?
Well I mean I was, keeping in touch with my family helped a lot.
Age at diagnosis: 26
Background: Joey lives in an apartment in an artists’ building in an urban area near where he had gone to college. He works part time in retail stores and is a musician. He is White.Click here to view Joey's profile page
… then I got to high school and between middle school and high school my mom, she noticed that something was kind of not quite right so she contacted the guidance counselor at my high school so that when I got to high school I had somebody to talk to and she set up an appointment for me.
I really wouldn’t have done anything unless my mom had taken the step to reach out to someone for me, if that makes sense. I felt like I had lost control…
…I did try to hide it but my mom knew something was off so it was, I wonder what she saw.
How did she… know?
Well I think it was because sometimes when we were out like at a restaurant or something I would just start, I would just burst into tears and I couldn’t say why I couldn’t explain why but I felt empty, I felt, I didn’t feel, I didn’t, I didn’t feel well and I guess, I guess that was one of the things she saw. I’m sure there were others but I’m not sure what she saw cause I did try to hide it.
Age at diagnosis: 14
Background: Sophie is a practicing fashion designer and a college senior studying fashion design. She lives with her parents and brother. She is Caucasian and of Mexican descent.Click here to view Sophie's profile page
People also described parents and other family members as being unhelpful or even harmful with respect to early experiences with depression. Some parents were themselves depressed or struggling with substance abuse, and not able to notice or respond to signs of depression in their child. Leanna and others said they would stay in bed and miss school, and their parents did nothing about it.
A number of people said their parents actively denied their depression by not wanting to believe there was an issue, dismissing it as a strategy for getting attention, or saying they thought it could be overcome by force of will. Violet’s mother told Violet she couldn’t actually be depressed if she is not confined to bed. Cara’s mother objected to therapy and Cara believes she would object to medication as well. Myra’s mother wanted her to keep any sign of depression hidden because of the stigma associated with depression.
I realized at that point that there was definitely there was definitely something more serious. I didn’t have the resources to really talk about it with anyone. My parents kept saying you know, “You just need to learn to be happy and to stop being anxious and you, you can do all of this yourself. It’s a self-care thing.” And although self-care is really important in learning how to kind of regulate your own mood, they’re just some like, after the years of experience in traumatization I got from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, I did not know how to handle it myself and I did not have the resources to but because there were people around me, not knowing what was really going on and telling me you know, “You can just get over it yourself,” I wasn’t able to access the proper help that I needed to at that point.
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 and so.
Everyone is already assumed to be mentally healthy. Everyone well I mean especially in my family and you know talking about some of these issues with other people, I have very strong people in my family tend to have very strong sense of self and a very strong sense of how we handle our own emotional mishaps. And so it’s not in our vocabulary to say, “Oh you think, you, you know, you tend to be sad consistently.” This is not really what they understand and of you do end up in that situation, they’re just like, “Well you pick yourself up and you deal with it,” Or you know, “Just be happy.” And you know it’s I really do hate the just be happy things because it’s really like first of all I really don’t want to be happy. Second of all, how, I can’t just be now.
So just be, just being aware of the fact that you know often times families just don’t have the vocabulary for these sort of things.
Age at diagnosis: 15
Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.Click here to view Crystal's profile page
*“Major Depression Among Adolescents.” National Institutes of Health, n.d., Web. 7 February 2016.