By: Cari Nierenberg, Contributing writer
Published: 05/12/2014 10:27 AM EDT on LiveScience
Whether they're stressing out over landing a job, finding a mate or repaying student loans, 20-somethings have plenty on their plate that could bring their mood down.
Although the 20s are typically considered the years of exploration and having fun, depression in young adults is not uncommon.
Young adults are saying goodbye to childhood and adolescence, and trying to make their own way while dealing with frequent change and uncertainty, which could trigger feelings of sadness and irritability.
Going off into the world, establishing a clear identity, developing a capacity for intimate relationships, and forming a foundation to build a future career and adult life are all part of the challenges to people in their 20s that could make them vulnerable to depression, said Dr. Stuart Goldman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Children's Hospital. [5 Controversial Mental Health Treatments]
What's more, those in their early 20s are dealing with these challenges before their brain is fully mature. The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain involved in reasoning and controlling impulses — finishes developing about age 25.
Most people who have a genetic vulnerability to depression, typically experience their first episode of the condition between ages 14 and 24, Goldman said. "The vast majority of people with a depressive episode in this age group will have a recurrence within five years of the first episode," he said, reflecting the recurrent nature of the illness.
To determine whether a 20-something might be depressed, Goldman described some common signs and symptoms in this age group.
A lack of enjoyment. Losing interest in once-pleasurable activities is a telltale sign of depression, Goldman said. People in their 20s might still go out with friends, but they may not enjoy themselves or have fun. Or they may isolate themselves and be less sociable, withdrawing from their peers and spending more time alone.
Low energy. "People with depression feel hopeless," Goldman told Live Science. And with a loss of hope often comes a lack of motivation. Feeling persistently down seems to drain energy and increase fatigue, making it harder to get out of bed or keep up with usual activities.
Reduced concentration. A mind filled with negative thoughts and a pessimistic outlook could lack focus and be indecisive during a stage in life when people are faced with important choices about careers, moving to a new city, gaining financial independence and pursuing romantic relationships. Poor concentration and inattentiveness while in college, on the job or in the military can further erode self-esteem.
Early morning awakenings. Depressed 20-somethings may find themselves frequently waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, unable to fall back asleep. People with depression may have abnormalities in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, Goldman explained. Young adults with depression often have higher cortisol levels in the early morning hours, which disrupts sleep.
Increased alcohol consumption or use of other drugs. To ease the pain and loneliness of depression, some young adults may turn to alcohol or other drugs as an escape or to numb their pain.
"Be honest with yourself about substance abuse," Goldman said. "Don't just say everybody else is doing it." Having a close confidant, whether it's a friend or life partner, can help in recognizing a problem and doing something about it, he said.
Less interest in sex. During a time when others may be frequently hooking up or looking to settle down, someone with depression may have less interest in sex, or a reduced sex drive.
Weight changes. People with depression can have a shift in their weight, in either direction. Some people lose weight because they lose their appetite and have less interest in eating, but others put on pounds, using food as a form of self-comfort.
For parents of young adults, seeing their child struggle with depression is a challenge for them, too. Goldman recommends that parents shift their role from "managing" their kids when they are 18 to 20, to becoming "consultants," starting at age 21 and beyond, available to provide a young person with guidance and support.
He said parents should remember that "young adults need to have the capacity to make decisions on their own."
The important message for 20-somethings is that "depression is a really treatable illness," Goldman said.