Depression and low mood

First experiences of depression

Depression can be difficult to recognise, and it can manifest differently for different people making it hard to identify. Here young people talk about their early experiences of depression and low mood and how it all started. Many described a gradual and escalating process of things “not being quite right” over some years, others could pinpoint specific incidents which had triggered depression.

“I don’t remember ever not feeling like this”

A few people said they’d never known life without experiencing depression or the underlying sadness and low mood. They’d “always felt like this”, “always felt a degree of sadness” and “been up and down all my life”. Some could trace back their first memories of low mood to as early as the age of 4 or 5, or first day of school. One young woman said she’d always felt like “a burden on others” and had “no one to turn to” as she was too young to understand what was going on.
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A few people said they couldn’t remember ever really feeling happy. A few described always just feeling “sad” with only fleeting moments of happiness; “I remember little things where I’ve been happy but it’s only ever been for like a couple of hours. And it don’t feel like I’m really happy.”

One woman said being sad and unhappy just became normal as she didn’t know any other way to be. Many of these people found it difficult to settle in school or to make good friends and would just cry every day they came home from school. For more, see ‘School & Studying’.
 
Gradual start of depression - “It just creeps up on you”
 
Most people described their experience of depression and low mood as a very gradual development over months or years. They’d felt “weird”, “not fitting in”, “an outsider”, “differently wired in the head”. Some said they’d always instinctively felt that things weren’t right, whereas others thought they were just going through a particularly difficult puberty. A few pointed out how difficult it is to recognise depression in teenage years when life is often all over the place anyway, as one person put it' “adolescence is a really painful time for a lot of people”.
 
“When I was a teenager there was always something going wrong, there was always a problem with a friend, or a problem with you, or a boy, or all these spots or whatever, there was always something.”
Many described never realising their experiences could be depression as they had “no awareness of depression” or “no idea about it”. A few people also said how hard it had been for them to recognise they were feeling depressed because there was no obvious “reason” or cause for it. Trying to address something without an obvious cause was difficult. One woman said' “because there was no reason for me to feel like this, I couldn’t fix it”. Another one said she had “no reason” to feel depressed and kept thinking “God, why am I like this when everything is absolutely fine in my life.”
Many found it hard to describe in retrospect the time they weren’t feeling “quite right” and were unsure if it was “normal” or not. Some said it had been a very scary experience to not understand what was going on.

For more about the experience of seeking help and getting a diagnosis see ‘Getting a depression diagnosis – or not’ and ‘Dealing with health professionals’.

Triggering events
 
Looking back on their lives, some people were able to recognise particular incidents or life phases which had “kicked off” depression. These included being ill or disabled, being diagnosed with a long term illness, unstable home life, relationship breakdowns, being abused, bereavement and recreational drug use.
 
Many said that difficulties at home, for example parents splitting up or the experience of domestic violence had contributed to them developing depression. See ‘Childhood and life before depression’. The instability of home life caused by a parent’s mental health problems also contributed to escalating problems for a few. They described their parents experiencing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or paranoia.

For many, bereavement had set off depression, either straight after they’d lost a loved one, or after years of not processing the loss.

Not being able to enjoy or sustain friendships had a major impact on many young people’s lives. Some had lost friends, or had difficulty making friends in the first place. Feeling “isolated” and “cut off” from the world and the peer group made growing up a hard experience for them. One woman said “I feel isolated in my own sadness”. Relationship breakdowns had contributed to sustained low moods for many. Being in “nasty” or “co-dependent” relationships and breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend had escalated their sense of low mood or depression.

Most people we spoke with had been bullied and many identified this as a major factor in their depression. See more of their experiences ‘Friends and relationships’ and ‘Bullying and depression'.
 
A couple of people indicated recreational drug use as a possible “catalyst” or “a trigger” for depression. One man, for example, said he’d started taking drugs as “an answer” to things going wrong in his life which then in turn, made things get much worse.

For a couple of people, their moods had suddenly changed after a violent attack. One young woman had been sexually assaulted in her teens and she said her life was never the same again;

“I was assaulted down an alleyway, and I probably don’t need to say what kind it was, and after that everything just changed completely, from that one event. It changed my view of myself and how I viewed everything else… My behaviour changed straight away. I used to be a good student and I was getting into trouble, I was getting myself deliberately kicked out of lessons because I just didn’t want to be there.”
 
Domino effect – “There’s always something going wrong in my life”
 
It was common for people to feel all areas of life starting to go wrong. It was hard for them to know what was the cause of depression, or the effect of it. Many were having a hard time at home, some had to move out, their school work started to suffer and they started to miss school. A few had got into trouble with the police for antisocial behaviour. One woman said there was always something going wrong with her life; “It’s like Dominoes, you hit one and they all fall down”.

Those who’d been diagnosed with a long term illness said, it had a domino effect on their lives as they might suffer with side effects of medication, miss out on school, lose friends or even be bullied. More about young people’s experiences of getting help' ‘Dealing with health professionals’ and ‘Getting a depression diagnosis – or not’.

For helplines and other resources please see our Resources’ section.

Last reviewed June 2017.

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