Depression and transitions to adulthood

The years between eighteen and thirty mark a time of transition from adolescence into fully-fledged adulthood. These are, as Kate put it, the years when people try to become “an entire human being, an adult person responsible for… herself.” People we interviewed described how this transition was influenced by their depression. They described how many of its stages – such as leaving school or home – unfolded.

People’s experiences with the transition to adulthood were diverse. Broadly speaking, however, people found that depression made growing up harder, that growing up made depression easier, or both.

Joey feels that his depression is largely the result of 'missing the memo on how to be an adult.'
Interview Transcript

…both my parents, you know, I mean they’re parents, they’re imperfect. But I mean like they were there for me. I mean they’re still together. I mean, I was never abused or anything or had any like messed up stuff like that happen, so it was more just like, I’m doing something wrong I felt like. You know, it’s like I just missed a memo on like how to be an adult and I’m suffering the consequences for this.

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
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
Sierra Rose says that growing a bit older has given her the perspective to realize that everything is temporary, including the worst parts of her depression.'
Interview Transcript

Once I moved out of my mom’s house, doors opened up, everything opened up. There are valleys in front of us and we just have to seize them. We have to realize that, yeah we may have come from a really crappy background, our parents may not have cared or may have been alcoholics or drug addicts or abusive or not there at all or maybe they cared too much and suffocated you, but once you where out of that, the world literally is at your feet. And that was, oh my god if I had known how the world was at my feet when I was 16 and tried to kill myself, I would not have tried. I would have known that this is temporary, everything is temporary.

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

Depression can make growing up harder

People described many ways that depression made growing up more difficult. As Sam put it, “having depression has definitely thrown wrenches in the works of my stumbling entrances into adult life.” Sierra Rose noted “… the growing up and the pressures and the way everything is set up now, it’s hard.”

For those whose depression began in childhood, it can be challenging to develop an identity apart from depression or to find a purposeful path forward. Leanna said depression has “molded my identity by kind of preventing me from doing a lot of things that I really wanted to do… the depression held me back…[and] robbed my life.” When Mara thinks about her life, she wonders how much of her personality “… is me and how much of that was influenced and conditioned by… this disease.”

Devin feels depression has left a shroud of darkness around him, making it hard to know who he is or what he wants to do in life.
Interview Transcript

It’s definitely left that shroud of darkness around me. I sometimes have problems with, I guess, my personality because it waivers sometimes. You know what, trying to think of things that I actually want to do with my life, going to college, all of those things are definitely affected by my depression. Like I, I realize sometimes that I, I don’t know who I am.

DEP Devin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Devin lives with his girlfriend and other roommates in a city he recently moved to from another part of the country. He has a part-time job in a store. He is White.

Click here to view Devin's profile page

People spoke about how their longer-term aspirations in life are influenced by depression. Ryan said he wonders, “Am I still normal? Can I be okay later in life?” Others described struggles with low self-esteem “pulling you down,” making the transitions associated with adulthood feel like things “you are not good enough to do.” Pete said depression makes it much harder to “be a man” and “stand on your own two feet” because all of that requires thinking ahead, but the best way to deal with depression is one step at a time. Frankie described how the experiences people commonly experience while growing up, like applying for a job you don’t get, are things she “just cannot get over” because of her depression.

Pete says depression has stunted his personal growth.
Interview Transcript

It stunted my growth, absolutely. It’s stunted my growth in all fronts, my self-esteem, the confidence that I have in my ability to do things, my reactions towards things. Now I am a person that I would really care to tell someone the truth. I would really, if they didn’t believe me I would make an effort to show them that I am telling them the truth or to make them see that what I am doing is genuine, and now I really don’t care. I don’t really. When I act selfish, I feel justified by it because I’ve been hurt so many times. I need to do me. I need to take care of myself. I need to take care, I need to show love to myself because no one else will and that is a very primitive way of thinking. It stunted my growth in so many ways because I could’ve, I feel at my age at 25 right now, I could’ve been greater and it’s only stunted me because it made me believe that I couldn’t. Genuinely believe that I couldn’t.

DEP Pete
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Pete lives with his mother and cat in an apartment in a large city. He is Hispanic. He has worked various jobs in the past and is looking for work.

Click here to view Pete's profile page
Whitney says growing up makes her nervous because depression makes it hard for her to live up to the expectations of 'normal life.'
Interview Transcript

… it makes me nervous cause I feel like I’m not ready for that. I’m not emotionally there which makes me not mentally there. You know, it makes me frustrated because at the age of 29 I should be able to have a degree and have a job, have a car, be able to pay all my bills, have custody of my daughter and be able to live a normal life and I can’t. I really can’t live like everybody wants me to. Like i’m supposed to snap back into being normal and that’s frustrating for me.

DEP Whitney
Profile Info
Age at interview: 29
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 9

Background: Whitney is unemployed and is staying with her father who has custody of her 9-year old daughter. She is White.

Click here to view Whitney's profile page

Jobs, careers and children

Jobs or career are one specific part of growing up that depression can make more difficult. As Elizabeth put it, one of her negative thought patterns was “… if I didn’t do well in school how could I go on to have a career? How can I support myself? My life was worthless.” Whitney “shuts down” when she starts wondering how she can find work and live on her own. (See ‘Depression and work‘ for a full exploration of this topic.)

People we interviewed who have children described mixed experiences with parenthood. A few people who struggled not only with depression but also with substance abuse and other issues had lost custody of their children – and found this loss, in turn, made “depression even worse.” Whitney, for example, says not having custody of her daughter makes her feel like she is not “normal like everybody else” she knows who have spouses, jobs, and education. In contrast, Sara and Violet described parenthood as a life-changing event that motivated them to (in Sara’s words) “get myself better… for her sake” and become the best mother possible.

Violet's devotion to her daughter has repeatedly motivated her to change her life for the better and address her depression.
Interview Transcript

It wasn’t until, it wasn’t until my daughter started witnessing and commenting on things, you know “Why are you crying, Why does daddy say those things to you? Why aren’t you happy?” I said “Alright this is enough.” because I’m not going to let, you know the same catalyst that while I was pregnant I wanted to be changed. I wanted to be aware for her, was the same thing that pushed me more recently. Because I wasn’t going to let her think that this is normal, I wasn’t going to let her think that this is how she should be, that this is what her life should be when she grows up. And I started, I went back to counseling I left her father, you know I moved back in with my parents and I made some significant changes to my lifestyle.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
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

A number of people who did not yet have children talked about how they imagined future parenthood. Joey said that because he thinks depression is influenced a lot by environment, he doesn’t worry “about having a kid that just… for no reasons is like, depressed.” Several people were thinking about what it would take to avoid letting their depression affect children they might have in future. As Leanna put it, “I just want to be able to function normally as a good mother and provide the childhood that I pretty much never had.” Nadina said she doesn’t think she is “psychologically stable enough to have a kid …[and] if I did have a child I feel like I would worry about how my mental health has affected them.” Crystal said she is nowhere near ready to become a parent yet, adding “I have trouble raising myself!”

Casey doesn't want his future children to suffer depression, but at the same time he wants to affirm the value of his own life by remaining open to parenthood.
Interview Transcript

I don’t want to pass this on—it’s shitty. It’s not fun. [Laughs] But also like I don’t wanna like, I don’t know, kind of like cheapen my experience as a human person in the world by being like, this thing makes it unworth, you know, being, being alive about. Because I don’t feel that way, I very much enjoy being alive. I really, really like moving through the world as me and this, I had, I have a friend, I’m actually seeing this weekend, which will be nice, who, who struggles with, with depression in a way that is more intense than, than I do and I remember we were talking about this at some point – I think first year of college – and I remember—I don’t know how it came up—but I remember the question was like, “Would you like if you like had the option to not would you not? And I was like, “Fuck it, yes! This is awful! I would really rather not!” and he was like “No, like this is really, really part of who I am.” And I remember being sort of like horrified by that being like “Dude, like, why? What is? Why would you not trade this?” And I do think it’s, it’s more integral to his personality than it is to mine because I think it’s harder for him. But so I, so like part of my instinct is like “No, I should not have biological children!” But also like I don’t know, I, I don’t want to be existing in the mindset that my way of being in the world is not worth continuing.

DEP Casey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Casey grew up in a rural place but now lives in a city with a roommate. He recently graduated from college and is considering graduate school while also looking for work. He is White.

Click here to view Casey's profile page

Shifting support systems

A number of people talked about how changes in their support networks affected their depression as they progressed towards adulthood. Shayne says she wished she had known earlier that depression would be an increasing challenge as she “move[d] away from really strong support systems [to] become an adult.” One person described her depression worsening when she went away to college and no longer had the same level of contact with her boyfriend from home.

Depression makes the risks of adult life feel more vivid for Sierra Rose.
Interview Transcript

I don’t have to check in with anybody anymore. When I lived with my mom she had to know where I was at all times and if I wasn’t home by dark oh my god, I was sorry. Now I could walk out the door at one in the morning and because I am an adult, nobody would care. It’s scary thinking about that nobody, I know people care, but in my head it’s this nobody cares anymore. Nobody cares if you get kidnapped at one in the morning. And it’s, my mother grew up, taught me to grow up being very paranoid, always looking over your shoulder always, you know, every van that comes around the corner be careful of it you know, don’t be out after dark, don’t do this, don’t do that.

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

See also ‘Depression and school’, and ‘Depression and relationships’.

Early depression can enrich adulthood

Several people described how depression in childhood enriched their lives as they grew to adulthood. Jeremy, for example, said he is happy that difficult experiences early in life provided a “trial run” so that when “stuff gets real… as you get older” he knew “how to deal with it [or be]… aware enough of my emotions.” Sam talked about how valuable it has been both for healing his depression and for life in general to gain “the ability to assess what’s going on both on and under the surface of my mind and make healthy choices about how to deal with and navigate them.” A number of people we interviewed described how depression had made them more mindful about their relationships with others, and more capable of nurturing healthy connections.

See also ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘The positive sides of depression’ and ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’.

Growing up can make depression easier

For many people, growing out of adolescence and into new phases of life helped loosen depression’s hold. A number of young adults described how getting a driver’s license, moving out of their parents’ home, earning their own money, making their own decisions about meds, and generally being less “at the whim of other people” helped lessen their depression. As Casey put it, “as I got older I got better at dealing with things… I’m a 22-year-old adult, I’m gonna go on a drive because I’m feeling sad today.”

Other people talked about how the emotional maturity and perspective they gained as they grew lightened the burden of depression. For some, this meant gaining the ability to better withstand peer pressure or being judged by others: in Nadina’s words, “people are not the ultimate, you know, go to person… like people have their own opinion, their own ideas about certain things, but I just had to realize…I really need to listen more to myself because there have been things that have almost like destroyed me.” Others talked about how some aspects of depression just “cleared up” as they matured and they gained more perspective, maturity, and sound judgment.

Jacob says as he grew up his brain matured and he got better at managing his depression.
Interview Transcript

In the very beginning, it was absolutely chaotic and I had, I had just a jumble of information and feelings and thoughts and emotions and worries. And I had no idea how to kind of package that up in a manageable way. And, and address it. And I feel like a lot of people, a lot of younger people with depression are going to go through the exact same thing. And part of that is because being young, you just, that’s how your brain works. Your life is like that. It’s very chaotic and it’s not, it’s, it’s very hard to manage even without depression. And so then you add that on top of it and it makes it even more difficult. So as you get older, and I hate to say that because that’s what my parents always said, but like, you get older, you get better at managing situations. But there will be a point where things start to kind of just naturally clear up, because your brain develops and you’re able to just process information better, more effectively. And there will be a point where it starts to clear up a little bit, and then you can make decisive actions and then you can see the results of those and either continue that or try something else. And eventually it will get to the point where you, you figure out what works and what doesn’t. And once you get there, it’s just maintaining it. It’s just, keep doing what you’re doing. And you’ve figured it out. So now it’s just keep going.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page

A number of people described gaining the ability to manage cycles of depression as they grew up. As Jacob put it, depression “never actually goes away and it’s not something you can necessarily solve… [but] you just get better coping” with it. Violet said she used to think “no matter what I do I’m always going to feel like this,” but eventually she realized this was not so.

As Brendan moves into adulthood, he values the ability to work effectively around his depression so it isn't so disruptive.
Interview Transcript

You know, I’m just– it’s just a part of life, it’s an aspect. I’m learning how to work with it without letting it collapse in every once in a while, you know. And that’s one of the, been one of the nice things about living with, living with someone else who has depression because, you know, we can kind of work together and like. What I’ve been working on a lot recently is getting a sense of like sort of like my cycles because, you know, hormone cycles and just like when does depression affect me and what ways? And I am sort of trying to like, I would, I’m historically the sort of person who like when things are good, I will just like run charge full steam ahead to get shit done and then when depression happens, I just lay there and don’t really do anything. And what I’m trying to learn is exhausting myself less when things are good so that it doesn’t eventually cave in and like basically learning to as, as I kind of call it ride the cycle. Make it something that I work around and, you know, just make work rather than something that occasionally comes in and fucks shit up.

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

Click here to view Brendan's profile page
Sam says he will probably have symptoms of depression his whole life, but is learning to process them better with time.
Interview Transcript

I don’t know with a 100 percent certainty what the rest of my life is going to entail. It would not surprise me, based on my experiences with depression so far, what I’ve read of academic studies of depression, and what I’ve learned of other people’s experience with it, it would not surprise me if I continued to feel these symptoms for the rest of my life. But it also would not surprise me if, as life went on, even if I do experience more severe episodes than what I’ve experienced so far, I’d get, hopefully, better and better about recognizing what goes on in my brain and enacting consistent and healthy and I feel like there should be a third adjective but I can’t think of one, so consistent and healthy plans and coping mechanisms with which to, not get rid of them, but process them in a beneficial way.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
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

See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope.’

Adulthood and transitions

Transitions of any kind were described by many people we spoke to as a significant “trigger” for depression. As Sally put it, “transition… was always my issue.” Because the path from adolescence to adulthood is marked by significant transitions, it can be particularly tricky to navigate. Some of the transitions people describes included new living situations, moves into and out of school, attachments to new people, and the assumption of new responsibilities. Many of these transitions and their associated hopes and disappointments are explored in other parts of the website referred to at the bottom of this page. Here, we focus on the transition out of college and into the world of work, which was a significant passage for the subset of those we interviewed who attended and graduated from college. See also ‘Depression and school’.

People had mixed experiences of the transition out of college, some of which had lasting impact. Sally and Elizabeth, for example, both struggled mightily with the transition period itself, sinking into deep depression while job hunting. Once they found employment, however, things improved: as Elizabeth put it, working is “really positive, it makes me feel accomplished, I’m good at what I do [and] I love what I do.” Joey had a very different experience after college, because he didn’t feel that his life continued to progress in a useful way.

Joey says his depression is connected to feeling he was not doing what an adult should be doing after graduating from college.
Interview Transcript

There was no college, it was just like a bunch of people just drinking and like doing nothing you know. It’s like. It was like college but you take away all the good aspects of it and then you’re just left with like a bunch of people getting drunk and like doing nothing, like. It’s like there’s no like social engagements beyond like you’re core group of friends. There’s no classes where you’re bettering yourselves, you’re not in like a new cultural kind of deal or it’s exciting. Yeah. I think that was the difference in. I don’t know, how do I say this. I don’t know. There was something about like just after college, because it was like you’re doing something in college. You’re like working for something and then you’re out of college, it’s like. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to college to have a particular job, I kind of went to a be yourself alternative school, so it’s like I didn’t like come out with like engineering skills I’m going to apply towards a career. I just like kind of like hopped around from crappy job to crappy job as they did and it was like, after like a couple years it was like, what are you doing. Like, where are you going and I mean not that I’m going to blame that necessarily on like as depressed as I got but I mean that was one of the factors and questions that came up. Like, as the years kept going by, you know I was like twenty-five and you’re not doing anything with your life, and you’re twenty-six and you’re like you know, just still barely, you know, making a little bit above minimum wage. Like, where’s this all going…

I know some people it’s like, they struggle with this for like decades or lifetimes, but I feel like this is kind of just more of a chapter for me or like, I don’t know. I, it seems like a very contextual as opposed to something that like that kind of just developed like long term growing up.

So would you attribute the cause of your depression more to those contextual factors?

Yeah, that and just like not, not doing what an adult should do, which like if you don’t do that long enough will take you to a dark place where you don’t want to be in. It’s like you need to be like pushing yourself, you need to be a, like doing some form of work. It doesn’t even need to be necessarily paid, but you need to have like something where you get up in the morning, you go do it some days out of the week. I think that helps a lot. You know, constantly, like hanging out friends and seeking new friends and like expanding your social circles. Like, hygiene, eating properly, you know like healthy and regularly, which I’m still working on but I mean like, I just pretty much checked out of like all those things. I mean every, I don’t know, I was just like unable to take care of responsibilities and then that kind of just snowballed out of factor to the point where it was like you wake up in the morning and it’s like I don’t know what. No, this is not happening just…

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
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

Accepting depression as a part of adulthood

A number of people talked about accepting the possibility that depression will remain part of life – though maybe in a milder form – as a crucial part of embracing adulthood. Natasha summarized it this way: “I think since I am coming into adulthood it’s becoming something that… is an aspect of my personality, this is something that I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life presumably, and sort of like accepting that and being okay with it” is key. Some people emphasized that it felt important to make peace with their childhood, even if it involved abuse or neglect, in order to move on (despite the legacy of depression) and become a grown up. A couple of people felt the question of whether depression would remain part of life for them remains open, and talked about what it takes to deal with that uncertainty.

Casey would like to know if he will keep experiencing depression, but figures he had better be prepared either way.
Interview Transcript

When will it end? Will it end? Can it please end? Really, really I would want to know if there and my guess is, greatest expert or no, they would not have an answer for me but I would really like to know if this is something that I will be experiencing my whole life or if there is a chance that I will not and if it is, fuck man, like how can I like, how can I best deal with that and make kind of long-term plans because I don’t long-term-plan about it and if it’s not, how can I get to that point because that, unlike my friend, I think that would be ideal. And I do not think it is, I think it shaped me but I don’t think it’s necessary for it to continue to be part of who I am.

DEP Casey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Casey grew up in a rural place but now lives in a city with a roommate. He recently graduated from college and is considering graduate school while also looking for work. He is White.

Click here to view Casey's profile page

See also ‘Depression and school’, ’Depression, bias, and disadvantage’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’, ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘The positive sides of depression and ‘Depression and healing’.

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