Childhood Depression Can Have Lasting Impact on Well-Being in Adulthood

Rearview shot of a young woman and her daughter having a conversation on the porch

shapecharage / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • In a decades-long study, researchers found that depression onset in the first two decades of life predicts poorer well-being in adulthood.
  • Those who reported chronic symptoms (as opposed to isolated episodes) and who first developed depression in adolescence were most likely to struggle in adulthood.
  • This research can inform policy surrounding mental health treatment and social programs.

Nearly 14% of youth aged between 12 and 17 in the United States reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to Mental Health America.

A decades-long study has found that childhood depression is associated with poorer well-being indicators in adulthood, including:

  • Anxiety and substance use disorders
  • Worse health and social functioning
  • Less financial and educational achievement
  • Increased criminality

"We really wanted to understand the long-term consequences of childhood depression," William Copeland, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont who led the study, tells Verywell. "We think that the results were pretty persuasive about this independent effect of childhood depression on adult outcomes."

Although the links between childhood depression and poor adult outcomes were strong, researchers found that mental health interventions can help. Those who received effective and timely treatment were less likely to struggle with worsening mental health problems in their adulthood, particularly with anxiety.

What This Means For You

Depression in younger age groups can go unnoticed and untreated, but early intervention is crucial. Although depressive symptoms in children can be characterized by acting out or angry behavior, most adolescents with depression show symptoms just like adults: through sadness, hopelessness, and mood changes, and not just in response to an event.

Timing of the First Depressive Episode

One of the biggest challenges in evaluating long-term consequences of depression is that it requires repeating structured interviews over a long period of time, Copeland says. The latest findings are based on an ongoing community-based project that started tracking 1,420 participants in the southeast U.S. in 1993.

Children between the ages of nine and 16 were first assessed for depression symptoms through up to eight interviews. Researchers followed up with the same participants during young adulthood to evaluate not only mental and physical health, but also social, legal, educational, and professional statuses.

Although any depressive episode predicted struggles in early adulthood, researchers also found that timing of the first depressive episode made a difference. Individuals with adolescent-onset depression had worse long-term outcomes than those who first experienced depression in childhood.

"But the strongest predictor of adult functioning really was the level of symptoms that you had on average across childhood and adolescence," Copeland says. "It's just as bad, and maybe worse, to have these symptoms chronically."

It's important to keep in mind that these findings may not be applicable to every young adult. For example, the study sample is skewed towards Native Americans while Black and Hispanic Americans are underrepresented compared to a national sample. Still, Copeland adds, their findings have been consistent with nationally representative studies.

Implications for Mental Health Treatment and Policy

There is no silver bullet for treating and preventing early depression, Copeland says, but there are various interventions and policy changes that can help.

Identifying children who are most at-risk, perhaps through screening in primary care or schools, could be helpful for intervention, Copeland says. In addition to seeking adequate mental health care during childhood, access to treatment should stay open throughout life transitions—for example, when moving, going to college, or starting a new job.

In terms of policy, Copeland says he's excited about the child tax credit, which doles out money to families with children that make less than certain income limits. Eligible families can receive $3,000 per child ages six to 17 and $3,600 per child under the age of six. Copeland hopes that the tax credit could act as a cushion, easing families' financial stress. This extra income could open up access to mental health care for vulnerable children and teens.

"Most folks who have depression tend to have it for the first time in the first two decades of their lives," Copeland says, noting that receiving early treatment can have a positive long-term influence on one's life.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mental Health America. 2021: The state of mental health in America.

  2. Copeland WE, Alaie I, Jonsson U, Shanahan L. Associations of childhood and adolescent depression with adult psychiatric and functional outcomes. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2021;60(5):604-611. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.07.895

  3. Mullen S. Major depressive disorder in children and adolescents. Ment Health Clin. 2018;8(6):275-283. doi:10.9740/mhc.2018.11.275

  4. Costello EJ, Copeland W, Angold A. The Great Smoky Mountains Study: developmental epidemiology in the southeastern United States. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2016;51(5):639-646. doi:10.1007/s00127-015-1168-1

  5. The White House. Fact sheet: Biden-Harris Administration announces Child Tax Credit Awareness Day and Releases Guidance for unprecedented American Rescue Plan investments to support parents and healthy child development.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.