Depression and low mood

School & studying

Here young people talk about their experiences of schooling, from primary to secondary schools, courses, colleges and university and if they felt depression and low moods had affected their schooling.

School work, performance pressures and exam stress
Most young people said they really enjoyed learning but for many there had been a struggle between their desire to learn and challenges presented by depression or social difficulties at school. Many had been bullied in school, struggled to “fit in” and make friends through their school years. See; ‘Bullying and depression’, ‘Childhood and life before depression’ and ‘Friends and relationships’.

For many, depression or their low moods had had an effect on their school work. Some described being “among the top groups” in the class, “a model student” or “the clever one” but their marks had dropped drastically after being diagnosed or during depressive episodes. Some felt it was hard to focus on school work when they had “no energy”, “couldn’t function”, felt “apathetic” or had little or no motivation. As one university student said;
“For me as a university student it’s really difficult to kind of keep up with things when things are really bad. Because like sitting down and trying to focus on a written piece of work is difficult.”
Performance pressures and exam stress are common for anyone but for young people with depression coping with normal levels of stress when they had other emotional issues to deal with could be difficult. Especially for those in higher education, colleges and universities, workload could be hard to manage during depressive periods and some found the exam stress made depression worse.
School performance was a major factor in how people felt about themselves. It could become a vicious cycle where people couldn’t do the work properly because they felt so low, ended up getting low marks in exams and would then feel even worse about themselves. One woman said she always blamed herself for her grades going down, though she had dyslexia and was struggling with depression;
“Because of my low self-esteem I didn’t really bother about it [grades falling]. I figured well I’m getting these results because I’m rubbish at it, not because I’m not making the effort”.
A couple of people described themselves as “perfectionists” and said for them, the performance pressure or school stress was particularly hard to handle and could make depression and anxiety worse. Some felt external pressures from teachers or their family to do well and felt they were “failing” not just themselves, but others too.
Some people struggled with school work because they had learning difficulties, dyslexia or ADHD which hadn’t been recognised until much later. A few people said they “got in trouble” because of learning difficulties. They were accused of “messing about” in class though they were just “bored” or couldn’t understand some of the lessons.
Some ended up re-sitting their year or re-enrolling on their university course.
A few people found the prospect of future studies daunting and stressful because they didn’t feel optimistic about their future at the best of times. A couple of people said they tended to worry about everything and run through worst case scenarios in their minds of what could go wrong at college or university. For some, having to make choices early on in school about their study and career paths was overwhelming.
Changing schools and not going to school
Many of the young people spoke with had missed out large chunks of school. For a few, this was because of extended hospital stays or feeling unwell but for most, not going to school was their way of getting away from social pressures, work stress and bullying. Some said they went to school but just didn’t do anything there. A few people found being in school so intolerable that they decided to change schools. For some this worked, and they felt better able to fit in and do their work whereas for others the situation remained just as bad or got worse. One woman describes how changing primary schools helped her;
“At my first primary school no-one wanted to work and it was a school with a bad reputation and the one I went to everyone was sort of better behaved and I fitted in better.”
A couple of people actually stopped going to school altogether. They later realised that not getting their GCSEs or other qualifications restricted their opportunities for work and further education. One woman left school to be home schooled instead which she found a great experience. Home schooling gave her a break from school pressures and enabled more flexibility in her work.
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Transitions between schools could be tricky. A couple of people had been split from their friends when they moved to secondary school. Some changed to do their A-levels in a college rather than in their secondary school. For them, it was easier to fit in socially and focus on their work among students who were motivated and took their studies more seriously.
Support from school
Young people’s experiences of support they had got from their teachers and schools varied but most of them felt unsupported and in some cases that the school made things worse. Quite a few people had counselling through school but felt it had been inadequate for anyone with more than a “bit of exam stress”. They felt that teachers generally lacked understanding of young people’s mental health problems and were unable to deal with depression or self-harm appropriately. As one woman described;
“Total lack of support I received in school. There was no counselling service and a complete lack of understanding of young people’s mental health. I felt throughout my school life they didn’t care about what was going on with me; simply caring about grades and hitting targets.”
“There was nobody who seemed to have even the slightest understanding of just how bad anxiety and depression is. They just treated me like I could ‘snap out of it,’ but wasn’t trying to.”
Many were angry and frustrated by the lack of intervention by school in bullying or other social problems. A couple of people felt that even teachers were bullying them and one woman said her teachers “severely disliked” her and saw her “as a distraction”, rather than offering her support.

A few people felt well supported through school or university and said it had made all the difference for them being able to finish successfully. Flexibility around deadlines and course work enabled these people to finish their courses and achieve to their ability. Understanding about difficulties with depression and a sympathetic ear was also really important to these young people.

Life after
Quite a few people said that while they were in school, they never realised how much more there was to life. They wished someone had told them about the all the different choices they had after school, instead of feeling pushed onto a rigid educational path. Some people said their lives had only started after school and wished they had realised earlier on the whole world outside of school waiting to be discovered;
“When you’re at school, you feel like it’s the be all and end all. You don’t realise there’s a f***ing world out there with best friends that you’ve not even met yet. At school and stuff it feels like that’s gonna be forever, and it’s not. If I could tell myself anything back then, it’s just count down the days, there’s a world outside there waiting for you, away from all this crap.”

Last reviewed June 2017.


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