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Depression

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.

 

Was worried and sickly as a child, and then when he went into secondary school he was bullied and...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Male
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When I was say perhaps about four or five, six I used to feel quite... well I can just vaguely... hazily sort of record, quite sort of being worried. I mean I remember the first day I went to primary school, I remember I burst out into tears and so on. And but I'm sure I think I soon got over it. And that was that. But whilst you're in primary school I had quite a lot of colds, and used to have to be off school quite a bit which of course did not help.... like didn't help. 

And then sor... that was like from the age of five through til eleven. And then [sighs] the real problem came when I was aged eleven and then sort of twelve, I can't... it's when I went to secondary school. And, it was not a very... well it was sort of as far as schools go, it was alright, but I mean it was in my home area near [name of area], where I still live today. I mean I've lived here all my life, and sort of, as I still do, you see, but school, or the secondary school I went to wasn't a particularly pleasant place, it was full of sort of, bullies and well, I don't like to say thugs, but some of the other children I say were at that time. 

I've been thinking quite a lot about this of late, were quite unpleasant people. They were quite you know, it was all sorts of names under the sun and I used to be called queer and gay for no particular reason. And or bender and all sorts of, you know, hurtful things like that. And for no particular reason and you know, and it really hurt.

 

When she was a child she thought she was going into a children's home as a punishment because she...

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Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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Because of my problem...  Because my Mum had had such a bad time having to run me.... I mean from now, knowing how far [the Hospital] was from where I lived, it must have been an awful trek for a woman during the war years to have to take a child that small with another one in tow twice a week to... for radiotherapy or radio treatment, whatever it was. It was cancer I had. And I now believe that it was a heck of a trek. Then, I used to think, "Why doesn't she love me? Is it because I'm sick? Is it because I'm causing too much trouble? 

There was no other reason for it. It's just I was a normal child. In my own little mind I was a normal child. I played with my toys, I tried to play with the neighbours children. I loved my sister, and my brother was only a tiny baby, but I mean I still loved him and then as I say, suddenly Dad came in one day and he said, "Ah, pack your cases you're going to Nanny's", which was his mother, "and then tomorrow you will be collected". 

You know at that age you daren't say, 'Well where am I going? Who's going to collect me?' And my uncle, my Dad's youngest brother who was'. he's about ten, fifteen years older than me. He and his father and my Nan took me to the railway station.

And I was collected by a nun who, on the train journey to [town]...to the convent told me that my younger sister would be following us, but not quite so soon. They wanted me settled in first. And all this was because my mother was sick. But [sigh] I never, [pause] whether it's because they didn't talk to us about how sick she was, why she was sick, what it was that was making her sick, I don't know. I assumed it was me. I'd been pulled away from the family and put in this horrible place. It wasn't horrible but it... a child of seven going into this big stone building with a nun and a big empty hallway. I mean, you can imagine what children's homes were like years ago, nothing like they are now. And I thought this is my punishment, and all because I was born with something wrong with me.

 
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At a similar time her parents broke up, her best friend left, she moved to middle-school, and she...

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
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I thought it was a really, really good school. But I was having trouble with the teacher and stuff because, it's a really stupid story but she used to have these little competitions every week, and we weren't allowed sweets except that you could win the sweet in this competition. 

So I kept winning the sweet every week, which obviously didn't make people very happy. But really she should have done a different competition and sort of just given different people sweets. But instead she kept doing it and then told me to go off somewhere else which I was like, I was only 8. I was saying, 'Well, I want my sweet.'  

And the whole class kind of went, 'No, make her go', and I think that really, was really traumatic. And I suddenly realised that up until then I'd worked really, really hard at school and I thought, if you do well and work hard, people like you. And it made me realise that's not true. 

And that happened at a very similar time to like my parents splitting up and my best friend leaving. I think the whole thing was very unsettling. And where I lived, we had Middle Schools so when you were 9 you changed school, and basically at that time I changed school, my whole personality totally changed, and became really introverted and shy and withdrawn.
 

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.

 
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She links her current day anxiety to the unpredictability of her parents arguments and father's...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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The anxiety is' was' for me it goes back to my parents and arguments and I guess living in fear of my father because he had a violent temper. I won't go too much into it because I've done all that, and it is quite upsetting so I won't do that, but I lived in a home, a household that you [phew] I could recognise when, when there was going to be' I guess like a volcano. I visualise it as a volcano becoming to, beginning to erupt and you, you know that it's building up. 

And I could see that happening between Mum and my Dad and it was like, I would be sort of saying to myself, 'Please, you know Mum please be quiet don't, don't', because she used to egg him on you see, and the more she egged him on, the more he got more angry and more angry. And I was sort of thinking no, no don't.  

And sometimes it would subside, sometimes it would subside and it would be ok and blow over, and other times it would just erupt. And, and so every time that there were raised voices, if I went to bed at night and was lying in bed, you would start hearing the voices, and you would be lying there thinking are they going to get louder, and louder and louder. And me being in that sort of state of not knowing because there is a fear of what might happen, you know, and I think that's got a lot to do with my anxiety now because anxiety is about sort of [forward thinking]' about sort of anticipating the worst.
 
 

Gets angry with people who complain about relatively minor problems with their families because...

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Age at interview: 24
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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And it's very difficult to sort of not get uptight with somebody that is, as far as I'm concerned, moaning about their life, moaning about their experiences or moaning about their family. 'Oh I hate my mum she does this, I hate my mum she does that, I hate my dad he does this.' And you think, "What are you talking about? You haven't got a clue." 

It's like, I don't profess that I've had the worst childhood in the world, I know there are people out there who have had a really bad, upbringing. But I've had a bad childhood. And then when I hear people saying that they've had a bad childhood, and you know, why? 'Cos I got smacked.' Really? Do you know what it's like to be beaten black and blue? You know, it makes me quite uptight with them because, they don't, in a sense as far as I'm concerned they don't realise how lucky they actually are. 

How bad things could be for them. And it does make me quite uptight but it doesn't make me jealous, it just makes me sort of wanna shake them and say, 'Look, you know, this is the real world, you're living in it, you've got nothing to complain about. You've got all the support networks you could ask for, you've got all the security you could ask for, you've got all the love and affection you could ask for, what more is there that you need in order to try and get the best out of your life?'

 
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Says that parents can be part of the problem in depression, and just as they can be abusive, they...

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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My family were initially very supportive and I don't think to this day they really understood what was going on' sometimes it's difficult because parents are part of the problem. Just as parents can be abusive in terms of, hitting you over the head with a brick, equally some parents, and probably my parents, were just too, supportive, too kind of' they didn't allow me to get out and get a couple of knocks. 

I think that I certainly know that my father was worried whether they had done something, it was something that they had done that had made this happen....They can't help with the therapy. They can help with everything else, but [pause] I don't think until you're better you can really explain to them what's going on, so, it's probably good that they can hear or read somewhere about the sort of things that happen. I again'. I'm pragmatic about that. I just.... they don't... I organise my life and they don't necessarily ask me about things. It's a bit of a Mexican stand off I think because I don't tell them, and they don't ask, so nobody knows.

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.

 
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Had a difficult childhood and family life, and lost her grandparents in 1996, which was very...

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Age at interview: 33
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 24
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It's very difficult for me to think back as to when it started because my childhood was quite unstable and not' people around me probably didn't think it was. But my parents had a lot of problems and there were a lot of problems within the family that were kept kind of secret if you like'. I know when certain key things happened in my life at quite a young age which must have had an effect on me and' but as to when the depression really kicked in, probably after I lost my grandparents. It was quite traumatic for me. And that was in '96'. 

My Gran [name] my Dad's mother. She lived very near us and she was very stable, very strong lady, very loving, caring, nurturing. That's where I got all my stability from and suddenly she was gone. And it was sudden, she was elderly yes, but I didn't expect her to die for some reason. It was a shock to me and perhaps still is. It is still a shock that she's not here some times. I know that sounds strange after seven years but sometimes I still have to tell myself she's, you know I'.. something happens I think, 'Oh I'll tell Gran that'.  And I think, 'Oh' it's just a fleeting second thought and I tell myself, gosh she had been gone for seven years pull yourself together'. but she was a very strong influence on my life and I think when she went, when she passed away I kind of lost control, lost control of it' let myself kind of be what I really felt a bit more. I didn't care really as much about what people thought, or it wasn't as important. I did care but it wasn't as important. It, I could not have' I would not have wanted her to see me as I'd been. I'm sure she has been around me and has seen how I've been but, but on a physical level I wouldn't want her to have seen me in that kind of state.

 

His grandmother died and he became anxious his mother would also die. When his father later died,...

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Age at interview: 50
Sex: Male
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I think I can remember being a very happy little child, and then something happened when I was about 5 which changed things. So if I can tell you that story.... 

When I was about 5 my grandmother lived in our house and evidently she died one night and my mother, then the next day when I asked where she was my mother told me she had gone away on holiday and [pauses] that's all she told me. And it was around the time I was starting school. So what happened when I went to school was that when my mother left me, I became very anxious, and every morning I used to throw up in the playground and this seemed to be like a daily event. And I ended up being taken, I can remember being taken to see this man. My mother told me afterwards it was a child psychologist and he interviewed me and then he saw my mother and apparently he said to her, "His grandmother's died hasn't she?" And she said, "Yes, but we've kept it from him." And he said, "well, he knows and now he's anxious that you're going to, going to disappear". 

So I think that's probably the beginning of it and I think I was quite an anxious child looking back. When I was 8 my father died.... He died at home too and my mother, obviously had known from the previous experience, she told me the next morning that he had died in the night, although I knew he was dying. He was dying of cancer so it was obvious to me. Although nobody told me he was dying, I knew he was dying, so it wasn't a surprise to me. And then I felt that I had to be very responsible, I had to be very brave, very strong. I was the only child and I think half of me was trying to be mummy's little man. You know, I can remember trying to cut the grass with the hand mower and it was nearly as big as me, and I was trying to push this mower and I was trying to do everything I could to support her and... But at other times, I had terrible bouts of crying, I just cried and cried and cried.

 

Witnessed bombing and the shooting of people during WWII, and wondered if this had affected him.

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Male
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And we got very nearly bombed'. about two hundred yards from the bottom of the garden was an airfield, well the airfield that's still there, and the Germans came and dropped bombs that close. My brother and I witnessed an eighty-eight machine gunning the harvesters out in the field, the men were out, harvesting the crops with the horses and carts and a plane came along and machine gunned them.

A German one?

German Junkers yeah, then he had the cheek to fly down the runway about four feet off the ground, the full length of the runway. So those kind of things you don't know whether they affect you later on. I never ought to be alive according to the mischief we had, because we had a Lancaster bomber crashed, and we had whole belts of ammunition off it [laughs].

 
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At university she was dealing with grief from her father's death when she was 3 years old.

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Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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It was, it was quite good in a way, because it was the first time somebody had sat and listened to me, listened to my concerns, exclusively and that worked quite well. I remember being quite distressed at times because the counsellor had brought up things for me that were difficult to cope with. I was quite perturbed, I guess, about... I think there were lots of issues to do with bereavement, to do with my father, who died when I was three and I think moving away from home ... 

And being with other people had brought up a lot of issues for me, around my father, his death, and where I was going in life, and how when I was with other people who seemed to have parents bringing them there at the end of term, you know a mother and father, I think that had brought up a lot in my mind. So in counselling we dealt quite a lot with those bereavement issues, with how I was as a person and in the end I think I went for about three terms, and then the counselling kind of fizzled out at the end.

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.

 
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His mother died, he was bullied, was neglected, isolated, lacked social skills, and he was...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 17
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Okay so all these experiences from earlier on in life, my Mum dying, being bullied I guess, being neglected and isolated and being treated different academically. I think they all combined with my lack of social skills, which I'd not had a chance to develop until that point when I got to university and everyone else was having a great time.  

I was on the floor, literally and metaphorically and the prescribed drug and the therapy didn't really help very much and I'd developed this fixation that on this'.on a woman. And I felt, you know, very powerful feelings about all kinds of things, and it's hard to make sense of them, really. I felt, I could be saved or all this could be put away if somebody would come and rescue me, I suppose.

 
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Just before he became depressed he lost family members, there were workplace changes, and members...

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Age at interview: 68
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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In 1995 my wife and myself, we had the death of a parent on each side of the family, that was early 1995. In fact, we buried them within a fortnight of each other at [local] crematorium where we both hale from near that area. Where I worked in an office at that time, and it was a time of great change. A lot of people left the company weren't replaced, and the rest left behind really had to take up the slack and try and do their duties as well. 

During the course of 1995, we had my father-in-law move in, we both felt, my wife and me, that it was'. it was right he should come and live with us. He had no other family connections where he was, and he was an elderly man who we had a lot of respect for. And that meant we had to move house to accommodate him, to have a downstairs bedroom and a downstairs toilet. So that all came about within five months of both parents dying. 

And then soon after, I think it was possibly early October, my daughter and her son who was a babe in arms suddenly turned up on the doorstep, and she said, "Our marriage is over, please can I come and stay with you?" So from just being two of us, there was five of us about four different generations living here.

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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