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Depression and low mood (young people)

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.
 

Erika-Maye always felt that she’s just “a waste of people’s time”.

Erika-Maye always felt that she’s just “a waste of people’s time”.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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I remember being very young, and blaming myself for things all the time, and thinking at the age of 4 or 5 how much better the world would be without me in it. And I’ve always heard these voices, always saying things like, you know, “The world would be so much better with you not in it.” “I want you to kill yourselves”, that kind of thing. But yeah I can’t remember not hearing them, and for as long as I can remember I’ve always felt like I’m just draining people, and being a waste of people’s time. And when they told me that the voices were depression related, then I was saying I’ve heard them for as long as I can remember, so.

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.”
 

It took Sara years to pick up the courage to seek help for her long term mental health problems...

It took Sara years to pick up the courage to seek help for her long term mental health problems...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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Well I say over the last maybe 10, not 10, 8 years or so, I was having kind of problems which I suppose you cold definitely say were mental health problems. But my parents, especially culturally, they don’t really believe that, it’s kind of a quiet taboo anyway and then just generally they personally don’t believe you could have mental health problems, they thought it’s just someone being a bit silly so it was quite, I didn’t really have the courage to make an effort to do anything about it. But last year during university it kind of hit me that it was, it was kind of, everything seemed to be taking over my life and I wasn’t really studying properly because it was, you know I might have done well in my A-levels and got into a top university, but it wasn’t really… like suddenly I had this huge impact of my life, on my life and just everything was just falling apart of coming together or, however you wanna say it but it wasn’t really working well anymore. So I decided to start like seeing the school counsellor and stuff. And although I’ve never been formally diagnosed by a doctor, I mean I asked my doctor once or twice to se a psychiatrist but my parents didn’t really like that so I didn’t really have a formal diagnosis.
 

For Darren, developing depression was a gradual process and an outcome of many different factors.

For Darren, developing depression was a gradual process and an outcome of many different factors.

Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
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I think it [start of depression] was sort of a gradual process, it was, I mean going through school and everything I went through in there, like you know going from all the top classes to the bottom, and like I said the bullying, and I mean even like by my friends you know? Occasionally being bullied and that. All the side effects of the tablets, you know, like the acne and the shaking and the boils and the, you know everything, I got bullied for all that and, it all affects, all affected and like, what’s the word? All affected my…
 
Self confidence?
 
Yeah, confidence yeah. It all affected my self confidence. It was just gradual through school and through college as well. You know up until that point when I, with my friend you know, done that to me and then meeting that girl, and you know it all just kept going wrong. Oh, so I didn’t really live a good life.
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.”
 

Jo says she used to just 'run away' from her problems. She'd get suddenly really angry or really...

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Jo says she used to just 'run away' from her problems. She'd get suddenly really angry or really...

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
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And I didn’t really talk about it [mother’s death]. I went back to school, like on Monday, and I just kind of ran away from it. And again, just became very, I became calmer in a lot of ways because when my Mother was ill and was like very, kind of you know neglecting but also like we were sort of very kind of fluctuating in her behaviour, so in a way it did stabilise my everyday life to a certain extent.
 
And I just kind of kept running so I was just, and I just thought okay like “I’ll just focus on the future” and like, “As soon as I will grow up everything’s gonna be fine”, and again people just assume that whatever you do is just your personality, so I would still have like basically outbreaks of anger, like I would just suddenly get really loud and argument or, be very aggressive, at the same time like  especially round like January, February, is always a very vulnerable time for me. I would just like suddenly be like start crying or like feel really down but I couldn’t, like I didn’t understand what was going on, like I just thought like this is what it is and I wasn’t really reflecting on it and I just thought like, oh I just have to, if I just keep achieving certain things it will get better.
 

Lisa had no clue about depression until she was diagnosed with it.

Lisa had no clue about depression until she was diagnosed with it.

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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I think my first like episodes of feeling low, not actually depression but feeling low, has been since the day I started school because I’ve been bullied since I started school all the way through to High School. And then it gradually got worse as I, every single year it sort of built up to get worse, and then when I was 16, I think they noticed it when I was about 14, 15 or 16, they noticed that something was wrong  when I was going to the paediatrician.
 
So I was sent to a psychiatrist because I had behavioural problems anyway, so I had to see a psychiatrist. And he diagnosed me with ADHD, and then gradually, along with the ADHD became the depression, and then, like I said earlier depression, you can’t see it, you don’t always believe it. ‘Cos I didn’t have a clue what depression was until I was diagnosed with it. I sort of had you know sort of knew, but I wasn’t 100% sure if I was until they diagnosed me. And I think that’s when I went downhill.
 

Jennie was feeling really low and depressed and not knowing why made her feel much worse.

Jennie was feeling really low and depressed and not knowing why made her feel much worse.

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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It’s sort of you feel like you’re not fitting in and everything’s sort of seems like it’s bombarding you and you feel quite like claustrophobic and like everything, everything you seem to do seems to either go wrong or you just, and then like I used to like cry a lot, and be frustrated and stressed and I used to think well what’s actually happening and why, why do I feel so upset all the time, and, and then it’s like, it’s quite scary in some ways because you think well, why have I got these thoughts in my mind? And why are they telling me these things?
 
And like I’d cry all the time and my parents were like, “What’s up with you again?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” And that’s the thing like, the not knowing the reason, like when you do cry and you think well I don’t have a reason, and everybody asks you, “Well you’ve got to have a reason, ‘cos you only cry when you’re upset and you’ve got a reason.” And that frustrates you, so then like I ended up trying to control the thoughts by the not eating because I thought well, if I’m not eating then that’s going to get rid of the thoughts because I’ve got something else to concentrate on. Or, I’ll do a bit extra work because if I’m concentrating on work those thoughts aren’t there. That’s the thing, I always tried finding a way to avoid the thoughts, because they were like, they scared you because you didn’t know what was going to happen, and, although they weren’t like some thoughts were like, oh, I really don’t want to live anymore, and then you’d get even like worse things like, “Oh how would you commit suicide?” or “Do different things to get rid of these thoughts,” and it’s like, I, and I was at the stage where I was like really, it got to a stage where I was just really down, and just thinking of ways of committing suicide and I was just like this is not right. And I think due to sort of my intelligence I sort of realised well, this isn’t right, and then I think, like the Godsend was my friend ringing my parents saying, “Look she’s not eating.” And it sort of came about through the not eating rather than the depression.
 
So it sort of, like that the actual sort of physical side of the depression actually brought about the starting of the treatment rather than, ‘cos sometimes it is difficult to know through emotional ways if you are depressed or ‘cos sometimes you are just having a bad day. And it’s like they said, how do you diagnose depression? I mean so many people could be diagnosed as depressed, but actually is there an extent to which you draw the line and say well actually no, you are normal, or you are depressed. 
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.
 

Tom describes his early experiences of depression as living “in a trance” and like being in a...

Tom describes his early experiences of depression as living “in a trance” and like being in a...

Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
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I don’t know what it was, it was just kind of all of a sudden like, I never knew I had depression at all, I didn’t know what it was, I thought oh you know, I’ve got some kind of like, I don’t know.
 
Just felt a bit weird in a bit of a trance, almost like, in a bit of a bubble. Do you know what I mean? Just like things didn’t really seem the same, your perspective, the key into your perspective has changed. Your perspective on life has changed which is a bit strange.
 
So, you know, you’re looking at things and you think this is a bit weird, this is, what’s going on here you know,  and it’s really hard to describe that, because it’s obviously very subjective, you know people, people’s experiences are different but,
 
Absolutely.
 
I’d look at things and it would almost seemed like you were in some kind of video game, like you know this, the things are super vivid and you’re like, “Okay,” so then you’re in meetings and you’re thinking, “What the hell is going on here? This isn’t right. This is…” you know you’d feel a bit strange, people don’t look the same, anyway so I was thinking, “Well there’s something wrong with my eyes or something, what’s going on here?” ‘Cos I didn’t, I literally didn’t know anything about depression work wise.
 
So I rang up like NHS Direct at work in my lunch hour, thinking what’s going on, you know. And they were like, “Drink lots of fluids, you know, make sure you do this and have you had a heart attack in the last five weeks, have you whatever…?” And I was just like, “This is useless.” So, clearly useless, they haven’t got a clue what’s 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.
 

Frankie was a young carer from an early age to her mum who had depression. She herself felt...

Frankie was a young carer from an early age to her mum who had depression. She herself felt...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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Where to start? Okay, started feeling like general depression and stuff when I was about 10, getting bullied in school. My Mum had depression as well which had like a big impact on all the kids, like me and my sister, we were young carers for my Mum. So basically any issues I had weren’t dealt with. I had to deal with them myself, or my sister had to help me deal with them. Yeah, went into secondary school, got bullied quite a bit. Ended up being taken out of school because of it. So I was more of a full time carer for my Mum at that point. Because I was out of school. Started sort of not necessarily like self harming, started doing solvents and stuff, round the end of my garden and like inhaling like aerosols and stuff like that. Tried to, I took an overdose didn’t do anything. Didn’t take that many tablets but you know, and then yeah, from like the point of like 11 on, up until I was about 14 I just basically got on with my day when I was feeling depressed and stuff, like looking after my Mum and stuff didn’t quite realise how much it was affecting me because I just sort of put it to the back of my head.
 
And then when I was about 14 started hearing voices which scared the hell out of me. And started like seeing things, the imaginary friends, and at that point like I basically sat in my Mum’s room with her and basically told her everything about like what had happened in my life and what she’d missed out on, and you know the fact that she hadn’t picked up on the fact that I was depressed. I knew that had had like a big impact on me, I’d not told her about like the solvents and stuff because I didn’t want to upset her too much.

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.

 

B's mental health problems developed gradually over years as a result of bereavement and abuse ...

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B's mental health problems developed gradually over years as a result of bereavement and abuse ...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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I think they [mental health problems] probably started like between the ages of 15 and 16, sort of that area ‘cos that was when sort of things started to go pear shaped with my family and stuff and…although I think it might have started earlier on because, from like and early childhood I had lost a lot of people when I was really young. Like I lost two younger sisters, two years in a row like when I was in ’96 and ’97, I can’t remember how old I was then but. And then after that I think three years later, or something like that my Grandma died as well, and then like after then it just seemed like people kept dying, but ‘cos I’ve got like a really huge family from my Dad’s side and my Mum’s side, and my Dad comes from a family of 11. Well they used to be 11 and my Mum comes from a family of 7, so it’s quite a huge family, so, like people have been, like people have died and stuff like that. So I think it sort of came from that and...
 
Also because I’ve got a history of abuse in my family as well, so, I think that’s, that sort of brought the issues on later on when I was 15, 16 yeah.
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.
 

Rio was worried that his ecstasy use had been the cause of his weird feelings and caused ...

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Rio was worried that his ecstasy use had been the cause of his weird feelings and caused ...

Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
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I’d travel to [city name] and see all the lads, and then we’d go out and have a blast in you know in a club or whatever. And we’d do, you know, do a few drugs as well, which is a bit silly, but you know it’s what happens in big raves and things you know and clubs so, we’d just do it, a bit of fun. And then the day after is Sunday, you know and the driving home, you know a couple of hours drive down to London and it was like you know you’ve got work in the morning, you feel tired and so you could kick off the week in a bad, bad note anyway.
 
So it got worse and worse and worse over a period of two or three weeks and I became seriously worried that like ecstasy which is the drug I took, had kind of done some serious permanent damage. You know, no-one really knows what the effects are of ecstasy, it’s sort of, you know it’s a lighthearted social drug that’s acceptable, all of a sudden you know that dark side to it has gone bang [click] you know, what’s happened, what is this? Has this changed you know chemicals in the brain or something?

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”.
 

Stacey had problems on all fronts; “everything you name it, I’ve done it”.

Stacey had problems on all fronts; “everything you name it, I’ve done it”.

Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
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I can’t remember about three or fours years ago, me and my Mum have never got on. Never really had a good relationship. And then when I were getting older, I was getting kicked out of school, getting into trouble with the police. Everything, you name it, I’ve done it, been there done that. Drinking, drugs, everything, just, and then in the end and my Mum kicked me out. She used to kick me out quite often. I used to go to my step Mum’s or a friend’s. And I just through I’ll go back. So I ended up going back to my Mum’s house, and then it’d all start again. We’d have the arguments, I’d get kicked out. And then in the end I just thought I can’t be doing with this anymore, it’s making me ill. Can’t keep going back, going through it, the arguments, I just can’t be doing with it.

 

So because, I went to the [service], I explained my situation, said I can’t be doing with it any more it’s making me mad, so, do you know what I mean? They referred me to [name] Hotel in [place name] which is right, just a hostel for homeless people.
 

Helena says 'everything was stacked against' her. Problems in school contributed to her...

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Helena says 'everything was stacked against' her. Problems in school contributed to her...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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Through my GCSE years of 10 and 11 I wasn’t really going to school. I had zero confidence and began to find it hard to leave the house, becoming quite agoraphobic Because of the bullying from all sides I thought everyone wanted to hurt me in some way. Every time I didn’t go to school I was terrified of the education welfare officer coming round. I was stuck in my house where I felt safe but also scared. No one was giving me any support except my mum, who tried her best to understand my problems.
 
My first experience of depression was when I was having trouble in High School and the school were threatening my mum with prison and saying I would fail my exams etc. I was incredibly depressed and anxious, just about every day. I didn’t feel like doing anything or going anywhere. All I felt like doing was lying down or crying. I did also sometimes feel suicidal, but not to the extent that I think I would do anything about it as I had my mum who has helped me so much over the years and I love dearly.
 
Although I was depressed I managed to get on and do my coursework, nearly all of it from home. That is still something I’m proud of, because I feel everything was stacked against me.  

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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