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Depression can strike at any time — including during your early 20s. In fact, data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System shows that people ages 18 to 24 have a higher risk of developing depressive illness than any other age group.
And it’s understandable. Whether it’s work or relationships, there are plenty of emotional and psychological challenges to deal with — making it pretty common to feel down because of the pressure you feel in your 20s.
The good news is that depression is almost always treatable, even though it might not feel that way when you’re depressed. Especially if you've ever thought, "why is my depression getting worse?" With the right combination of therapy, medication and self-care, it’s possible to recover from depression and find joy, meaning and happiness in your life.
Read on to learn more about depression along with the symptoms you might experience if you’re depressed. You’ll also find info on the factors that can contribute to early 20s depression — along with doable strategies to help you deal with it all.
Depression in your early 20s doesn’t have to be tough to tackle — and can be addressed by making changes to your lifestyle and talking with a mental healthcare professional. It’s even helpful to rally your friends.
Let’s start with the basics.
Depression is a common mental illness that can affect the way you think, feel and behave. It’s a particularly common mental health disorder in young adults, with studies suggesting a prevalence of 15.2 percent for people ages 8 and 25.
Put simply, this means that, in the studies, around three out of every 20 young adults experienced some form of depression over the course of 12 months.
Depression can affect nearly every aspect of your thoughts, feelings and moods. When you feel depressed, you may experience the following symptoms:
An anxious, sad or empty mood
An inability to feel pleasure and a loss of interest in your hobbies
Pessimistic feelings and a belief that things are hopeless
Reduced energy levels and fatigue
Irritability and difficulty staying still
Changes in your appetite and weight
Difficulty focusing on specific tasks or remembering information
Trouble falling asleep or waking up early in the morning
Aches, pains, digestive problems and other physical symptoms
Oversleeping and constant feelings of tiredness
If your depression is severe, you may also develop suicidal thoughts. It’s important to keep your family members and friends informed about your symptoms so they can help you when you feel unwell.
Depression can cause you to feel trapped. You may feel like your thoughts control you, instead of you controlling your thoughts. When you’re depressed, it’s easy to feel stuck and as if there’s no way out from your current situation in life.
In addition to major depressive disorder (clinical depression), there are several different forms of depression. These include:
Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia). This is a long-lasting form of depression that can occur for several years. People with persistent depressive disorder often have depressive episodes followed by periods of less severe depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a form of depression that often develops in winter. People with seasonal affective disorder often have symptoms that worsen during the winter months, then improve in spring and summer.
Psychotic depression. This is a form of depression that involves psychosis symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations. People with psychotic depression often develop severe symptoms that require ongoing treatment and attention.
Our guide to the types of depression provides more information about the specific symptoms of these forms of depression, as well as how they’re treated.
Depression can develop at any time in your life. But as we shared above, it’s particularly common to develop depression during your late teens or early 20s, as you transition from adolescence to life as an adult.
Researchers have identified several major risk factors for depression including genetic factors, physical illnesses and certain types of medication.
Other common risk factors for depression include sudden, major life changes and situations that cause you to feel stress.
As a young adult, life can be confusing and difficult. Things like working out what you want to do with your life, finding a job, dealing with a difficult educational workload or just finding friends or a person to love can all take their toll on your mental health.
These things are difficult enough on their own, but they can be particularly challenging when just a few years ago, life felt much simpler.
Add student debt, loneliness and immense pressure to succeed into the mix and it’s easy to see why what should be a happy stage in life often becomes an unpleasant one.
Going off into the world on your own is a major change, and it’s far from uncommon for it to turn into a difficult time for your mind, especially if you also have other risk factors that can make you prone to depression or other mental disorders.
Here’s the real deal: Depression is treatable. Even if your depression symptoms feel severe and overwhelming, there is a path forward. The key is to find this path and then take small, continuous steps each day toward thinking and feeling better. Here are some ways to get there:
When you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to have a network of people who can listen to you and provide support.
If you begin to feel symptoms of depression, reach out to a close friend or family member for help. Let them know you’re not feeling the best and don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice or guidance.
Most important, let other people help you. It’s easy to let yourself become isolated when you’re going through a depressive episode.
Resist the temptation to be alone, and instead, allow other people to come into your life and help you move forward.
When you’re in your early 20s, it’s easy to let a demanding educational schedule or busy job get in the way of exercising. You may feel like you don’t have time to work out or that other things in life are more important than going for a run or hitting the gym.
Luckily, you don’t need to exercise that much to experience physical and mental health benefits. Try to follow the CDC’s recommendations and get at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity in each week, breaking the time up into separate sessions. You can walk, run or bike, and be sure to squeeze in two strength training workouts per week, too.
Mindfulness meditation involves training your mind to feel calm and focus on the present, rather than on thoughts that can cause depression and anxiety.
You can practice meditation at home by finding a quiet location, sitting down and focusing solely on your breath for a few minutes. If you feel your mind starting to wander, try and bring it back to the present so that you can focus purely on your breathing.
To get some extra social interaction, try taking part in group meditation at your college or in your local area. Mindfulness is another way of how to recover from burnout, which can seem very similar to depression.
When you’re depressed, drinking or using drugs can seem like an easy way to avoid reality and the harsh, difficult feelings it can involve.
The reality is that while alcohol and drugs can provide an escape from depression, over the long term, they tend to make things worse.
Research shows that alcohol use has a causal role in major depressive disorder, and that when people drink more alcohol, they’re more likely to develop depression. There’s also a significant link between illicit substance use and mental health disorders.
While you’re recovering, try to avoid alcohol or illicit drugs. Instead, focus on making steady and reliable progress toward overcoming your depression symptoms.
Great sleep is essential for both your physical and mental health, but it isn’t always easy to get when you have a busy work or school schedule.
Try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, or more if you frequently feel tired during the day.
Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, involves talking about your depression symptoms, concerns and anything else that’s troubling you with a licensed mental health provider.
One form of talk therapy that’s often super effective for treating depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy involves identifying the thoughts and behaviors that have contributed to your depression, then taking action to change them.
You can take part in therapy locally with a mental health professional or from the privacy of your home using our online therapy and support group services. If you’re a student, you may be able to access free or low-cost therapy on your college campus.
Our guide to therapy for depression goes into greater detail about how psychotherapy can help you think differently and work toward overcoming depression.
Many people with depression experience real, noticeable improvements after starting treatment with antidepressants.
Antidepressants work by adjusting levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals involved in regulating your moods and behaviors).
Most antidepressants take several weeks to start working, and it’s common for your sleep and appetite to improve before your mood.
Several different types of antidepressants are prescribed to treat depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). You may need to try more than one antidepressant before finding the medication that works best for you.
When you feel depressed, everything from getting out of bed to making small decisions can feel almost impossible.
Like other mental illnesses, depression often develops early in adult life. If you’ve noticed a sign of depression in your early 20s, it’s important to take it seriously. If it gets worse, or if you notice other symptoms, you should seek help from a licensed mental health provider.
Depression is treatable, and for the vast majority of people, long-term recovery from depression is possible.
If you’re worried you might have depression, you can connect with a mental health provider for personalized help using our online mental health services.
You can also find out more about dealing with depression, anxiety disorders and other forms of mental illness with these free online mental health resources.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.