Childhood & life before depression

Most of the people we interviewed tried to explain why they had become depressed. Many believed their depression was the result of chemical imbalances in their bodies, but even these people entertained other possible reasons. One woman thought that her depression might have started at the age of 13, triggered by the start of her periods. But around this time her parents had also divorced, she lost a best friend and she had troubles at school, and she thought these might also have contributed.

Many people said that when they were children they had been very sensitive to upheavals such as moving to another area or changing schools, or had felt hurt because they felt different from other children or were bullied. Others felt they were to blame for events that were really out of their control. Some people were bright as children and did not fit in at school, feeling different, bruised or traumatised by their lack of acknowledgement and support.

Not all reported difficulties in their families when they were young, yet such problems were common among the people we talked to. Some had dealt with unpredictable and violent parents; felt misunderstood by parents; had rigid upbringings; experienced a lack of parental understanding that their problems were not laziness; felt parents did not approve of them or their lifestyle; had to cope with a parent with mental health problems; had parental pressure to 'succeed'; experienced emotional neglect and in some cases physical and sexual abuse. One woman felt her parents were 'too supportive', not allowing her to learn about life. Most depressed people seek an explanation for their illness in the events of their lives, particularly their childhood, but this should not be taken to mean that such events inevitably lead to depression. Many children come through a disturbed childhood without getting depression in later life, though for others it may be a powerful contributory factor.

It was very common for people to have had a loss or trauma, or a 'life event' that affected them very deeply. People said they were not always aware of their grief or trauma at the time. Indeed some found it difficult to understand that they could be so affected by things that happened decades ago. One man said 'While I was depressed, I couldn't see that my mum's death at aged 8 was such a big factor, and now I can.' A number of people were unsure about the role of events in the past. For instance, one man witnessed people dying in the Second World War. But he believed his depression was more likely to be due to a chemical imbalance. Clearly though, current day situations could trigger grief reactions that were buried deep in the distant past. Some people suffered losses (e.g. relationship breakdowns) as adults that contributed to depression.

A number of women became depressed after the birth of their children. One woman felt that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell women how having a baby can turn their worlds upside down. Before her severe depression she had lost her mother-in-law, had a difficult labour and been traumatised when her son did not breathe at first. Her depression made it difficult for her to bond with her son.

Some people had multiple issues that they were struggling with that just seemed to overwhelm their coping skills. One man who had never had depression before suffered a severe episode after considerable disruptions, including two deaths in the family and workplace changes.

Life events do not always lead to depression. Some people who had had depression in the past (and who had been treated) were pleasantly surprised that they could cope well with life events, even severe difficulties.

See also our Young people & depression section.

Last reviewed September 2017.

Last updated October 2012.


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