Depression and obesity major challenges for young Irish, research finds

Friends the main source of emotional support, with mothers the next most likely confidantes

Almost one third of young Irish women and one in five young Irish men are experiencing symptoms linked to depression, while obesity rates among 20-year-olds have increased sharply since the same individuals were teenagers, according to research published by the State’s leading economic and social research body, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The latest snapshot of life as a young person in Ireland also suggests that just before the pandemic hit, 20-year-olds leaned heavily on their friends and mothers for guidance, and were even more reliant on technology.

According to the latest raft of information published as part of the Growing Up In Ireland research, most 20-years-olds were still studying and living at home in 2019, while a majority were in a romantic relationship.

Many 20-year-olds appeared fairly satisfied with their lives; however, substantial minorities were experiencing at least some level of distress, including a quarter who reported above-normal levels of stress and a fifth who had elevated scores on a measure of depressive symptoms.


It found 32 per cent of women aged 20 and 22 per cent of men of the same age scored highly for symptoms with strong links to depression.

The study – carried out just before the Covid-19 crisis hit, changing much of how life in Ireland is lived – paints a picture which will be crucial to understanding the full impact of the pandemic in the years ahead, according to the researchers.

‘Key phase’

It also captures a “key phase” as the young people involved made the transition into post-school education, training and employment, formed adult identities and forged new relationships with peers and others.

It focuses on the lives of young adults who were aged 20 in 2018/19 and who have been followed by the researchers since they were aged just 9.

Friends were the most important source of emotional support, with 86 per cent of those surveyed saying they would talk to friends about their thoughts and feelings. Mothers were the next most likely confidantes, with 69 per cent saying they would confide in their mothers, just ahead of romantic partners. Fathers were some distance back, on 43 per cent.

All told, 57 per cent of 20-year-olds were in a romantic relationship of some kind at the time of the survey, while 84 per cent had had sex, with just over half becoming sexually active between the ages of 17 and 20.

While 85 per cent of the young adults knew condoms were the most effective method of preventing STDs, just a third of sexually active 20-year-olds used them on every occasion.

Overall, 65 per cent of young adults achieved the national recommended guidelines for physical activity, with men more likely to meet the goals than women.

All told, 24 per cent were overweight, with 13 per cent described as obese at 20 years of age. The figures represent a significant increase in just two or three years. When the same cohort took part in the study when aged 17 and 18, 20 per cent were overweight and 8 per cent were obese.

Over 95 per cent of those surveyed used the internet, listened to music and socialised with friends, while over 80 per cent attended pubs/clubs or watched television. Young men were more likely than women to participate in active pursuits such as attending the gym and play team sports.

“While the majority of 20-year-olds report good physical health and enjoy supportive relationships with their parents and peers, today’s young adults face significant future challenges,” said Dr Desmond O’Mahony, the report’s co-lead author.

He noted the quarter who were overweight and the 13 per cent obese, saying this represented “a large increase since the previous study wave”. He expressed concern at the high percentage of young people who had elevated symptoms of depression, which he said was “a worrying trend for the mental health of Ireland’s young adults”.

Over half of all 20-year-olds said they typically spent more than three hours online per day, with more than 20 per cent spending five hours or more online. More than 90 per cent of all 20-year-olds used the internet for social media, watching video content, searching for information, and messaging and calling people.

Gender differences

Outside of these core internet activities, there were marked gender differences in some categories of online activity. While 68 per cent of young men used it for gaming, only 16 per cent of women did. Some 16 per cent of men bet online, while 3 per cent of women did the same. Dating was split 30 per cent/21 per cent in favour of men, while 64 per cent of 20-year-old men said they watched pornography online, compared with 13 per cent of women.

The survey also suggested that 15 per cent of 20-year-olds were daily smokers, while a further 23 per cent said they smoked occasionally. Nearly 60 per cent of young adults had tried cannabis at least once, while 18 per cent took it occasionally and 6 per cent took it more than once per week.

The study established a link between young people remaining in education and their own parents’ level of education.

While 86 per cent of 20-year-olds who came from a household where parents had degree-level qualifications went to higher education, the number fell to just 48 per cent for those whose parents were educated to Junior Cert level or lower.

All told, 68 per cent were still living with their parents, while of those living away from home, 82 per cent spent several nights a month in their family home and still considered their parental address to be their “main address”.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor