You know what's a really fun thing to be? A woman in her twenties with major depression. I'm not trying to play worse-than-thou with this one; there are many identities in America in 2016 that aren't enjoying themselves in the slightest. But the combination of youth, gender, and depression is an interesting one, because it involves a set of pretty distinct circumstances that add up to something unique. This particular subset of society faces a wonderful triumvirate of Hideous Misconceptions: that they're too young to be seriously mentally ill, too female to be taken seriously, and not worth enough to be paid as much as men or given sufficient societal support. Ain't that a charming trio?
None of these conditions are unique, on their own, to depressed women in their twenties; but in combination, they, like the Planeteers in Captain Planet, become a force more powerful than their constituent parts. (Except that instead of a blue-haired dude with a crew cut, you get a set of socio-gendered circumstances and attitudes that make things very unpleasant.)
An estimated 2.8 percent of all Americans between 18 and 24 have depression, and over half of those people are women; it's hardly as if we're rare, special snowflakes, or a hidden proportion of the population. The reality is that this is a set of circumstances that will likely affect you or somebody you know over the course of your twenties, and this is a good way in which to understand what it's really like.
Here are the three unique aspects of being a depressed woman under 30; put them all together and it's like a giant salad of upsetting gender nonsense.
1. You're Told You're "Too Young To Be Depressed"
Depression is hardly reserved for adults. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America starts including people in their depression statistics at the age of 15 (and for people aged 15 to 44, it's the leading cause of major mental health difficulties). Of course, kids and teens can also have depression; a survey quoted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that, in 2014, a whopping 11.4 percent of the entire U.S. population of 12-17 year olds had suffered at least one major depressive episode. That's 2.8 million teens.
Depression is also a disorder that tends to cluster diagnostically around young adulthood; the average age of diagnosis is 32, though it's clear that it can be developing for years beforehand. This picture is telling us very clearly that young adults are eminently likely to feel depressed; but that's often not how it plays out in conversation."What do you mean you're depressed? You're so young! You have your whole life ahead of you? What do you have to get depressed about?!"
The idea that young people "can't get depressed" is an extremely stupid myth based on a set of ridiculous ideas. For one, as I've just explained, young people's brains aren't immune to mental illness purely because of their youth and vitality; if anything, the confusion and rapid shifts of adolescence and early adulthood can make you even more prone to depression. (A lot of people who get early-onset depression of this kind, according to studies, also have depression in their families, and/or were bullied as teens.) For another, your twenties are hardly a stress-free, universally enjoyable time. It's been suggested that the "low-level cognitive demands, minimal skills, and little autonomy" of entry-level jobs for 20-somethings can actually contribute to depression's onset.
Preconceptions about millennials as the "selfish generation" also lead people wrong, encouraging them to interpret the depression of young people as a manifestation of self-absorption rather than anything genuinely wrong. Having your serious mental illness waved away because you're "too young" and selfish to have it: always super helpful.
2. You're Informed You're "Just Being Emotional"
On top of the idea that a young woman should somehow be immune to depression because she's in "the prime of her life" (never mind that the prime likely involves crippling education debt, a seesawing job market, and other destabilizing factors), there's the other damaging concept: that women's emotions are exaggerated and distorted in the first place. Welcome to the one-two punch of depression as a 20-something woman: your depression is doubly devalued because it's often coupled with sexism.
While we're coming to new understandings about depression in women — they're more likely than men to experience depression, and explanations involve both genetics and the serious pressure of gender roles — we're still battling against the ancient concept that women are "emotional" and men are "rational," an idea that reaches back to the ancient Greeks and has lasting effects for ideas about female mental illness. Women's psychic pain and suffering can be dismissed as "exaggerating," as "just part of being a girl," or as "irrational," with the implicit understanding that if we had more of a dose of practical rationality we'd be able to drag ourselves out of bed and just get on with it.
This sort of nonsense, I must be clear, harms men too; the insistence that emotions are women-only business and that males are too strong to experience such wishy-washiness is a direct contributor to the high rates of male suicide. It's basically a no-win situation.
3. You're Also Dealing With The Pressures Of The Gender Pay Gap And "Having It All"
Women in their twenties, particularly women of color, are not only faced with societal disbelief and devaluing of their depression; they're also dealing with a set of social and economic circumstances that greatly increase stress, anxiety, and the possibility of depressive episodes. The world's not kind to young women, and that's not good for our mental health.
A definitive study published in January 2016 found that there's a direct link between women's experience of the gender pay gap in America and their likelihood of suffering from anxiety or depression. Women paid less than men were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from mental illnesses; women paid the same as men had the same depression rates as dudes. And that's exacerbated by the fact that the gender pay gap is even worse for women of color, leaving them more vulnerable to the mental by-products of a sh*t situation. Young women just entering the workforce aren't often in a position to fight this situation or be choosy about their employment, which makes the twenties a ripe time to feel powerless, disadvantaged, and stressed.
The idea of "having it all" and what that might involve has also been suggested as a significant contributor to women's depression. Psychology Today lists it among seven main factors that may explain the higher rates of depression among women. Women these days have far more choice than they've ever had before, which is wonderful; but it also leads to the immense pressure of choices about fertility, career paths "friendly" to maternity, and possible combinations of work and childcare. The choices are there, but the support structure often isn't. The workplace in the U.S. is still not a universally mother-friendly place; there's still no federally mandated maternity leave (25 percent of all employed mothers return to work less than two weeks after giving birth), and according to the United States Department Of Labor, only 69.9 percent of women with kids under 18 are still in the labor force, compared with 92.8 percent of men. That's not an environment where women's choices come without significant risks. And if you think women in their 20s aren't thinking about this, you're dreaming.
Depressed women in their twenties, in other words, face a lovely combination of circumstances that create both an inherently stressful and disadvantaged environment and a bunch of disbelieving, dismissive responses. It's a veritable picnic out there.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy