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Depression and low mood (young people)

Depression, self and self-esteem

Here young people talk about their sense of self; the way they perceived themselves and how young people felt depression had affected their view of themselves. A particularly common theme was (lack of) self-confidence. For many, depression and low self-esteem were closely connected and they described how depression had knocked down, what was for some an already low, self-confidence even further.

Lacking confidence and self-esteem

Many people we spoke with said they felt low about themselves. Many described feeling “poor” or “embarrassed” about themselves, had a pessimistic or negative view of self and felt “inept” and “clueless”, especially in social situations. Quite a few described how they didn’t like who they were; they felt worthless and there was nothing good about them. One woman whose hobby was singing and performing said she’s fine when she was acting a role on stage and being someone else but that “it’s being me I don’t like being”. Another one said she’d created imaginary identities for herself already at a young age because she felt she didn’t know who she really was. Many also described comparing themselves to others, their friends, siblings or other family members and said they felt inferior to them.
 

Joanna says she didn’t have “a mental image” of who she was and she used to make up an identity...

Joanna says she didn’t have “a mental image” of who she was and she used to make up an identity...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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I couldn’t see myself for who I was, so I’d walk past a shop window or something, and I wouldn’t recognise who it was. And so I sort of didn’t have a mental image of who I was, what I stood for, you know, sort of like this is me, I look like this and I’m like this, and I like this, and I remember used to having to make it up when I was at school, when I was at primary school. You know they sort of ask all these questions like, and you have to write your name and then you have to write what lessons you like, and which lessons you don’t like, and I remember just making it up, ‘cos I didn’t know what I liked and what I didn’t like.
 
I felt that everyone else knew who they were and knew what they were about and, and stuff, but that I didn’t. I’m sure that other people had feelings like that but, it was sort of, you know I went through a long stage of thinking I was adopted, to a stage where I actually requested my birth certificate and looked at it because I was convinced for a long time that I was adopted that you know this whole life can’t be quite true. And just… it’s, it’s quite hard to explain now sort of, because I’m not, I’m not there now. But it was just sort of like, just sort of like trying to discover who you are, but not really being able to get anywhere. I think I remember describing it once, it was like trying to, like say life is like a jigsaw puzzle, I was like trying to put it together but I just didn’t have all the pieces. It was like desperately searching for those pieces without even knowing what those pieces are meant to be.
 

Loz used to feel “worthless” and wouldn’t believe his friends who tried to tell him otherwise.

Loz used to feel “worthless” and wouldn’t believe his friends who tried to tell him otherwise.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
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I used to think I was sort of worthless, and people, people would tell me, “Oh you’re not worthless, you’re not worthless, shut up.” Sort of thing, but that will, that would make me think well they’re just saying that, they’re not really meaning it. You, if you really meant it then you would sort of do something about it, instead of just saying oh shut up, sort of “you’re not worthless”, sort of thing. But I, I talked to, well like my counsellor with it and he would be like, “Well if they didn’t think you were worthless,” or “if they did think you were worthless, why would they need to sort of say stuff to you to make you feel better?” And I’d be like, “Well, they could be just saying it.” And it would, sort of I’d go around in that sort of circle until I sort of realised that maybe yeah, if they were trying to, if they really thought I was worthless then, they wouldn’t care at all, they’d be like, “pha and?”, sort of cast me asunder sort of thing. But I do, I do think from time to time people care but I, sort of, sometimes I forget that and I’ll be like, and… you don’t care, sort of thing. But, I’m getting better at it, I’m getting better at it. I’m, I’m managing to sort of like put all these things together and be like, hey now I’m happy.
 

Holly says she has always had low self-esteem because she didn't do as well in school as her sister and cousin. She felt like the 'black sheep' of the family.

Holly says she has always had low self-esteem because she didn't do as well in school as her sister and cousin. She felt like the 'black sheep' of the family.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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I think it’s [self-esteem] always been quite low, again because I mentioned my sister, and obviously since she’s you know, she’s very articulate and she’s very clever, I always felt, ‘cos our family is, it’s quite an intelligent family, and I didn’t know at the time because of the dyslexia I couldn’t reach the goals and so, whereas they were getting all the good grades, I wasn’t. And that, I think that initially started the self esteem problems ‘cos I felt I wasn’t as good as the rest of the family and I was sort of the black sheep, I was the one that, that wasn’t as able, sort of with GCSE’s I think my cousin got, was in the newspaper for six A stars and five A’s. And I got all D’s and things, so obviously there’s … The same, oh in fact on the same day where I finished, took my sixth form because they said obviously you can’t catch up, so you may as well leave, on the same day as I left that school, my sister got, at the college was awarded Learner of the Year for the whole of [county name], so obviously there’s, there’s a bit of a , you know, it’s not that difficult to notice there’s a difference between us. So I think that started the self esteem problems, and the things sort of like with friends sort, when they were going out and they were inviting me out sometimes it was they were clothes shopping, ‘cos I’m a larger size so I couldn’t buy the same clothes as they were doing, at the same shops so I thought well I’m not going to go to things like that, and that didn’t help my self esteem either.
 

Sarah says it’s really hard to feel that you don’t “function” the same way as other people.

Sarah says it’s really hard to feel that you don’t “function” the same way as other people.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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The way I think now, it’s, it’s so drummed into my head that I can’t, I can’t change, I can change but I can’t change at the present moment like I’ve got so many like negative connotations to things and you just, it’s really difficult to change that, you’ve got to sort of force yourself out of the cycle and forcing yourself is the hardest bit.
 
It’s really, really difficult to do that, especially after such a long time of thinking in certain ways. It definitely makes it more difficult because I’m used to thinking like this and now all of a sudden somebody says it’s not normal, it’s not how you’re meant to be and that’s really, I don’t like it. But there is something, it’s not just me, it’s not, everybody doesn’t act like me, not everybody thinks the same as me, I, it’s hard to know that you don’t function the same way as other people do. It’s harder for you to get along with people, it’s hard for you to make friends and trust people, and just do things everybody else does every day.
 

Ruby says addiction took years out of her adolescence and when she came through it she” didn’t...

Ruby says addiction took years out of her adolescence and when she came through it she” didn’t...

Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
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I read somewhere, quite a few places actually, that when you come out of addiction you’re the same age mentally that you went in. So when I was 18, 19 I was still technically a 12-year-old, so that 6 year period in adolescence where you learn to interact socially, oh no, I’d have my face down a toilet, I didn’t have a clue. Like you know so I was still that 12-year-old who didn’t have a clue what was going on, when I was 18, 19 when I should’ve been having the time of my life and stuff, I was sort of 6 years behind because all my growing up had taken place in public toilets and sweet shops and stuff, you know and like lonely, lonely times in sweet shops and stuff you know, not the sort hanging out with friends or anything like that. So I did find it, incredibly, because you know ‘cos at the end of the day I was the equivalent of a 12-year-old trying to articulate a very adult problem.

Most people said they had extremely low self-esteem. They described being “a burden” or “a failure” and feeling “worthless” and “pointless”. One man said:
 
“I really feel like I’m a burden, like I’m a weight on your shoulders, I’m the chip on the giant’s shoulder.”
 
A couple said they were always putting themselves down, doubting and questioning themselves, regardless of their family or friends trying to convince them otherwise. Many also described a tension between the expectations and pressures they felt from themselves or family, and their ability to fulfil these expectations. Some said they felt insecure about their appearance and attractiveness and one woman said she’d never felt “validated” by other people. Lacking in confidence had affected several areas of young people’s lives; friendships, home, schooling, exams and studies, work performance or ability to seek work in the first place.
 

Craig says he felt like he’d failed everyone’s expectations in school, including his own.

Craig says he felt like he’d failed everyone’s expectations in school, including his own.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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It made me feel disappointed in myself and that I’d failed myself, I’d failed my teachers, I’d failed the parents. And that just made me worse, it just made me feel a whole lot worse, and you know, then it starts the onward spiral of you feel worse so you do worse, and then as you do worse your expectations of yourself fail more and then you start going worse and before you know it, you’ve dropped out of college and you’re out of work and you’ve not got nothing to your name.
 

Counselling has helped Jennie to see failure also as a positive thing and an opportunity for...

Counselling has helped Jennie to see failure also as a positive thing and an opportunity for...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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I want everything to be done right, and to my best ability, and like I said I got all A’s and A stars at GCSE, and then all A’s at A’ level. And just doing everything I do I want it to be done to the best of my potential, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that, and just with everything like the counsellor used to say to me, “You, you see failure as a bad thing, whereas sometimes failure can be a positive thing.” Like last year when obviously I didn’t enjoy, like my course, I saw that as a failure whereas she saw that as a positive thing because it gave me a chance to rethink and have another chance, whereas I, that was like the end of my world for that moment in time, because I’d failed and everything’s got to be like successful and an achievement and like done 100%.
 
I just feel like as well my little brother, like I always said I want to have independence so I can look after him, and ‘cos I’ve not got that independence it’s failing, and they’re like, “No it’s not, you’re 18, 17, 18, how can you be independent at 17, 18. You’ve still got to be a child for your parents, and they’re not going to see that as a failing because if you, like if you’re going to university and it’ll give them opportunities in the future for you to look after him, so it’s not a failing. You are doing something successful at the end of the day.”
 
But I mean I still am a perfectionist, I mean my Uni work like I will do it always to the best, and sometimes it does get on top of me like, I’m stressed because I know I’ve got four assignments before Christmas, and I want to get them done and, so I still have that, but I have a more, when I do get stressed instead of like it leading to being depressed sort of look at it more positive and find something else to do.
Self-esteem and depression
 
Many said that low self-esteem had been one of the key factors contributing to their low mood or depression in the first instance, for example being targeted by bullies because they were shy or reserved (for more see our section on ‘Bullying and depression’). In turn, experiencing depression had also knocked down their confidence further, as one woman said; “It’s a constant negative cycle”.
 
For some, lacking in confidence meant they felt reluctant, unwilling or unable to seek help for depression, anxiety and other problems. A few said they’d just be wasting doctors’ time or that there were others more ill or more deserving of help than them. In this way too, lacking in confidence could prolong seeking help for depression and contribute to making it worse. However, making that step of reaching out and seeking help, and being able to tell someone how bad things were had helped many to feel more at ease with themselves, and in retrospect, improved their confidence.
 
Young people also described a tension between the way they felt about themselves internally, and how they portrayed themselves to the outside world. Many described “faking” confidence, “acting” out a role and “hiding the real me”. Trying to be what they felt as more socially acceptable or attractive could take a lot of work and be a conscious effort for young people. One woman said that:
 
“They’d [friends] say that I’m really like confident and loud and strong minded and strong willed, independent and I’m completely the opposite on the inside. If I ever sit down and actually look at myself, I know I’m the complete opposite… I rarely even bring down my guard.”
 

Emma-Jane says she couldn't live up to the ideal 'fictional' person' that everyone expected so...

Emma-Jane says she couldn't live up to the ideal 'fictional' person' that everyone expected so...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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I do have no kind of belief in my own ability, my own kind of worth, like I am capable, I am really capable of academic achievement, but I still I didn’t believe it. And like I’ve got loads, I’ve got loads of groups of friends, if you write it down on paper what’s like my life is like, like you know, where I’m from, the grades I’ve got, things like that, I look like everything should be fine. But at the same time I felt that I just couldn’t live up to that ideal. I couldn’t live up to that point like that, this bubble that, this kind of fictional person that to me seemed completely separate from me, that everyone kind of looked at and sort of like expected so much of. I just, I couldn’t, I didn’t feel that I would be able to match that, and that I was worthless and that I just couldn’t like I couldn’t like, my parents and like my teachers all kind of like, “You’re going to go far,” and all this kind of thing, which is lovely to hear that, that you know people believe in you, but at the same time it was that pressure that I think also kind of sent me down because like I was just kind of like “I can’t do this, I, there’s no way I’m gonna be able, I’m gonna let me down, they’re gonna be angry at me, they’re gonna be disappointed in me, they’re gonna be this, this, this.” And then that would send me of into like a different thing.
 
Over sort of my second year of college, I remember being just a bad time, like to anyone that sort of knew me at the time, I would’ve seemed fine, I mean I was voted to like the bubbliest person in my college, but like behind that kind of façade of just being able to cope, and being able to kind of like handle everything and get everything done, and sort of still manage to like see people and do this, like everything behind it was just crashing. Like I felt really, really bad, and I felt bad for not telling people, but I, but because it was, I was restricted ‘cos I didn’t want to, it would go back to, I didn’t wanna burden them, I didn’t.
 
If I’m perfectly honest because both are sides of me, but I prefer the smiley side. I prefer the smiley side, I prefer that upbeat side but the downside is like is just, it’s just been there, it’s just what I’m used to. It’s kind of like it always has just been there and it always has like just been a part of who I am, what I do. All that kind of thing, and it is, it hasn’t been till like probably recently that I’ve kind of noticed the distinction between the two.
 

Sara says she’s good at “acting confident” and hiding her real feelings. She says she’s “better...

Sara says she’s good at “acting confident” and hiding her real feelings. She says she’s “better...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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When college started, university, everyone’s just known me to be a confident person, because once I left my old school behind it was just easy to move on and pretend like I’ve always been confident. But obviously it was kind of you know it was, it was actually worse than it was before, I wasn’t just feeling bad, it was I was doing things, to, make you know actually damaging me, so it was, it, yeah I got more confident I suppose in a way, but, I still even now I prefer doing things on my own.
              
But you know, I know when I was younger as well I was quite quiet, I am naturally a quiet person, I get, I like acting confident but the majority of the time I don’t feel very confident. So, you know I’ve become quite a good liar, it’s just not a great thin, I mean, I mean it’s not a great thing to admit, but I’m good at hiding like my real feelings. ‘Cos you know I can’t lie, really I’m a terrible liar, I couldn’t possibly steal something and then pretend like I hadn’t done it. I definitely, you know I’m definitely better at not being the real me, I can definitely hide the real me more now. So as a child I was probably quite quiet, and I was probably quite, I wore my heart on my sleeve, like if I was upset everyone would know it. And now it never happens like I wouldn’t, you know people, if they catch me on a really bad day I might be sitting there quite quietly going, “Go away, I just want to sit here on my own.” And I might, you know, that might be as far as it gets, but generally I’m not gonna, I don’t want to push my low mood onto everyone else ‘cos I know it’s quite contagious sometimes, if someone’s feeling sad I mean, they’ll make someone else feel sad, and it’s kind of, I don’t want to be the person that sets off a bit of a sob fest like sitting amongst a circle of friends, everyone started crying, and I was going, “No it’s okay.”  
 

Holly was a quiet child but says that depression made it worse. 'Speaking was an effort' for her.

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Holly was a quiet child but says that depression made it worse. 'Speaking was an effort' for her.

Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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I’ve always been quite a quiet child, because my sister’s quite a talkative child, ‘cos she’s quite intelligent, it sort of covered it, so I could hide behind her talkativeness, and, ‘cos we went to the same schools and things together. But it would, the not talking sort of became more of a problem during the depression because I didn’t really feel like it because talking was a challenge. It was an effort, it was something that I thought I had to do rather than I wanted to do. And because when I was depressed I didn’t want to do anything, therefore I didn’t speak, because it was an effort. So it’s something that’s always existed but, it was made worse by the depression yeah.
A few felt that depression had changed them and the way they saw themselves. They had lost confidence, become more withdrawn and passive or “put up a guard”. A couple described themselves as having been outspoken, confident and “bubbly” when they were younger but having lost the confidence to stick up for themselves after experiencing depression for a long time.
 

Blondel lost the confidence to speak up for herself and feels like “a doormat” walked over by...

Blondel lost the confidence to speak up for herself and feels like “a doormat” walked over by...

Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
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Do you think depression’s affected your, your self confidence?
 
Oh yeah definitely. Definitely. I wouldn’t say shy, but and, in turn I wouldn’t say I was ever really that outgoing, but I wasn’t afraid of meeting new people, I wasn’t afraid of letting you know, to be heard and to stand out, and you know to stand up for myself. If I didn’t necessarily agree with something I would’ve immediately said, “Well, you know I don’t agree with that,” and, you know and argued my point, and now I’m, I feel a bit like a doormat, since I’ve had the depression and I just feel like I’m being walked over and used, and even though I’m aware of other people’s behaviour and how I’m being treated, I haven’t necessarily got the confidence to stand up for myself anymore. And I just, I feel quite vulnerable. I think depression does make me feel quite vulnerable, and you know I’m quite low.
 

Sophie says she used to be active and really “funny and bubbly” and lead “a normal life” but that...

Sophie says she used to be active and really “funny and bubbly” and lead “a normal life” but that...

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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When I was younger I used to do loads of activities, I did dancing and went to scouts, beavers, cubs, I did loads of things, it’s just as life’s got, ‘cos I think as well, I used to be different as well because I used to be like a real girly, girly, but now as I’ve got older I feel insecure so I have to wear like tracksuits and stuff like that and just to make myself feel a bit safer and, a bit more confident. But at the minute I’m just trying to get out of that habit and just start being back to the way I was again.
 
So what did you used to be like? If you described your personality then?
 
Funny and bubbly and didn’t care what anybody said, and didn’t let anybody upset me, went to school everyday when I was in Year like 5, 6, 7. And then just leading a normal life really, going out with my friends after school, inviting them round for a sleepover, going out, chilling on the streets, just normal. But now life’s getting on, I’ve just changed. When I’m on a high my personality’s always been the same, I sit there and make them all laugh till they’re crying, they just basically have a laugh, but, I don’t know it’s just changed for some reason. Like I can’t see, I can’t see when it did change ‘cos I’ve always been up and down my whole life really.
 
 

Ruby says she could've lost more to depression if she had been older. She says although she 'lost...

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Ruby says she could've lost more to depression if she had been older. She says although she 'lost...

Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
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I’m also glad, like I know this sounds ridiculous but like you see a lot of people who are like 40 or 50 years old, they’ve got families, homes, and then they get struck by mental illness. Not being funny, like okay I lost mind, but I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t lose my kids, I didn’t lose my house, I didn’t lose my mortgage, do you know what I mean? So in some way I kind of think if I’m gonna get ill better it was now, than when I’ve got kids or you know, do you know what I mean? It’s like if, I kind of just think that I was always gonna get it so I’m kind of glad that I got it when I did, you know? A bit like getting the chickenpox, the younger you are the less severe it is, isn’t like? I’m not saying that the illness was any less severe, but the consequences certainly weren’t as, as they would be for like a 40 or 50 year old. The consequences of that just aren’t there, you know, you lose stuff, you do lose a lot, I lost friends, like some respect from people and stuff like that, but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Like, whereas sometimes when you’re a bit older there’s stuff that you can lose that you can’t fix.
Finally, a couple of people emphasised it was important to distinguish between depression as an illness and their personality, or sense of self. This view also helped them to approach depression as something that could be treated and overcome.
 

Jo says it’s important to make clear that depression is not “a personality trait” but “something...

Jo says it’s important to make clear that depression is not “a personality trait” but “something...

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
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I don’t look at it [depression] as part of my personality, per se because emotions and outbreaks are not a personality trait. Or at least not that extreme emotion, I like I don’t think that like and it’s not a personality trait that, I mean you wouldn’t describe somebody as, oh, like “That person’s angry.” Like that doesn’t say anything about somebody.
 
It is a disease in the sense that something is wrong in your organism, and it needs attention and it needs healing. But it’s not yeah it’s difficult because like it is in you but at the same time it’s not your personality, it just means that something has happened to you, whatever it is and like and yeah I deeply think that the scale of things, like something that might seem really benign to someone is really traumatising for someone else and that needs to be fixing and that needs attention and that is you.

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

Last reviewed June 2017.

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