Study: Depressed Teens Earn 20% Less Later in Life

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As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, much about our professional lives is often set when we're children or teens, well before we ever set foot in the work place. Our educations. Our parents' wealth. These things are strong predictors of where we'll end up down the line, regardless of our natural smarts or ambition. 

Another item that may belong on the list: mental health. A reminder of that comes today courtesy of a new working paper by Jason Fletcher of the Yale School of Public Health, which reaches the remarkable conclusion that adults who suffer from adolescent depression ultimately make about 20 percent less money than their peers and are somewhat less likely to be employed. 

This is not the first paper to conclude that those who suffer from depression tend to earn lower incomes. But Fletcher's paper attempts to improve upon earlier research by using detailed data from a 13-year longitudinal study, which started tracking a group of students in grades seven through twelve from across the United States in 1994. By looking at his subjects over time and incorporating information about their school environments, physical health, drug use, home lives, and other factors that could impact their early career success, he tries to isolate the impact of youth depression more precisely than in previous efforts. 

Teenage depression reduced labor force attachment by five percentage points overall, though it tended to have the biggest impact on employment among women. It influenced earnings more strongly among men. Controlling for educational attainment reduced the impact on income from 20 percent to 16 percent, while taking into account whether a subject was still suffering from depression later in life reduced it to 12 percent -- both steep drops nonetheless. 

Despite the many factors it controls for, the paper cautions that it's still premature to draw a causal link between depression and wages. But it argues that its "results are suggestive that the links between adolescent depression and labor market outcomes are quite robust and important in magnitude, suggesting that there may be substantial labor market returns to further investments in treatment and opportunities during adolescence."

In other words: our mental health may impact our financial health for years on end. One more reason for parents to watch their kids -- especially their feelings. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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