Blink 182 said it best: Nobody likes you when you’re 23.

Well, maybe some people like you, but that doesn’t make this time in life any less difficult. On the one hand, the period between ages 18 and 29 is the best ever: Many of us are developing a sense of independence in college, starting new jobs, scouting out the dating scene, or heading off to form new communities in new cities. On the other hand, this time period is often characterized by financial debt, romantic misadventures, loneliness, and a sense of uncertainty about who we are and why we’re here. So it’s little surprise that people in their late teens and 20s are especially vulnerable to feelings of depression.

The positive news is that these emotions are pretty common and typically pass by the time people hit the big 3-0. But depression can still be a serious issue that often requires some kind of treatment. We’re here to explain why depression develops in the first place, and how to address those feelings when they pop up.

Terrible 20s — The Need-to-Know

Sad Silhouette At one time, most people didn’t experience their first depressive episode until their late 40s or 50s; today, depression typically first appears around age 25. And while about nine percent of the American adult population suffers from depression, that number is closer to 11 percent among people ages 18 to 24.

Today’s 20-somethings are going through a number of psychosocial and biological experiences that make them especially vulnerable to depression. For one thing, says Dr. Meg Jay, a psychologist who’s written on the importance of the 20s, depression is often triggered by loss. And the period between 18 and 29 is filled with potential losses: breaking up with a significant other, losing friends, losing a job, failing school or not getting into an academic program, and realizing our dream career plans just might not work out. The 20s, Jay says, are a time of uncertainty, which can leave people feeling powerless to change their lives.

Biological factors also come into play. In the last few years, scientists have noted that the frontal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for planning and reasoning) doesn’t completely develop until the mid-20s Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. Johnson, S.B., Blum, R.W., Giedd, J.N. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of Population, Family & Reproductive Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Journal of Adolescent Health 2009 Sep;45(3):216-21. . This means 20-somethings are faced with making some huge decisions (where to live, what career to pursue, whether to propose) when they aren’t yet at their full cognitive capacity, which can cause feelings of angst and anxiety.

In some cases, 20-somethings might not realize certain lifestyle factors may contribute to depressive symptoms. Binge drinking tends to be most common and intense in people ages 18 to 24, and alcohol use disorders are closely linked to depression Alcohol and depression. Boden J.M., Fergusson, D.M. Christchurch Health and Development Study, University of Otago, Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Christchurch, New Zealand. Addiction 2011 May;106(5):906-14. . According to Dr. Cameron Johnson, a psychiatrist at Loma Linda University, the transition from high school to college (and from college to post-grad life) is often marked by changes in sleep schedules, which can also cause some mental health issues.

Whatever the reason for depression during this time period, there are a number of ways to cope. Many involve reaching out to people we trust and making small but meaningful lifestyle changes.

Looking Up — Your Action Plan

According to Jay, there’s little evidence those who get depressed in their 20s will struggle with recurring depression, especially if they address it properly when it first appears.

There’s a range of practical ways to alleviate feelings of depression. This list certainly doesn’t include every way to treat depression, but it does highlight some of the most effective strategies for people of any age.

The Takeaway

In spite of the pain it causes, depression can actually be a useful signal that something in our lives needs to change, whether that means ending a relationship or quitting a job. That said, it’s extremely important to address depression in some way, instead of just putting up with it. Though it might be difficult to admit we’re depressed, there are people, resources, and action steps we can take that will help us live healthy, happy lives long after our 20s are over.

Special thanks to Dr. Mark Banschick, Dr. Paul Zak, Dr. Cameron Johnson, and Dr. Meg Jay for their contributions to this article.

Got something to say? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.

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