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Electroconvulsive Treatment (ECT)

Childhood mental health

Some of the people we spoke to talked about the importance of their childhoods in relation to their mental well-being later on in life. Although some described their childhood as ‘happy’, others recalled real difficulties with their families, including experiences of emotional and physical abuse. People remembered periods in their childhoods when they felt sad, lonely or ‘out of place’, had low self-esteem or a sense of being a failure. 

A number of people mentioned feeling like they didn’t fit in when they were young (e.g. “they just thought I was a bit weird”), with some saying that they were depressed or anxious, even as a child. Although Enid wasn’t treated for depression until her retirement, she said that she had a period of “quite real depression” as a child when she found it difficult to motivate herself. She felt she “was different from the other people” at her grammar school. She describes herself as feeling isolated and not being given equal recognition when she did well at school. 
 

When Cathy was asked to leave her college due to her “strange” behaviour no one explained what she had done. Her mother intended to challenge the decision at a tribunal but Cathy took a course elsewhere.

When Cathy was asked to leave her college due to her “strange” behaviour no one explained what she had done. Her mother intended to challenge the decision at a tribunal but Cathy took a course elsewhere.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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I remember you saying earlier on in the interview that things have changed quite a lot during your lifetime and that when you went to college there wasn’t a lot of understanding. You were saying people just thought you were strange…

Yes.

…in a sense. And that time that you got thrown out of college and…

I did, I did. I started my nursery nursing course at, in [name of town] and I don’t remember a lot about what happened but apparently my behaviour was strange. Well, I don’t know what it was because I don’t remember doing anything strange, but it must have been strange. And I made an agreement with the college that I would leave and take time off and get some help and get better and go back and start the course again. Which I agreed to. And… that was in about the Easter, anyway before the summer term started, or would it have been September? Anyway, some time we had a letter from the college saying that because of the way I behaved, I’m not even sure if they said that much, but basically the gist of it was that they, I was never to darken their doors again, I wasn’t allowed to speak to any of the people on my course, and don’t ever come back. Which was a bit stunning really. And my parents said that sort of, I think they complained or something to the local education authority and they were going to have some sort of tribunal thing about it. But in the meantime I applied to do the course, the nursing course at another college, in [name of town], and before we got to go to the tribunal I got a place in [name of town]. And so we never went to the tribunal and I never found out what it was that I’d done that was so dreadful. Which I regret because I would like to have known why they, you know, came to that decision, because it seemed very unfair to me. I would never have left if I’d thought they were going to, you know, tell me not to ever come back. But I, you know, like I said, I don’t think thing-, you know, back then, we’re talking about the early 80s, you know, I don’t think people understood as much. I mean they don’t understand much now but they understood even less then, and the stigma around it all. It was probably to do with stigma actually, thinking about it. They didn’t want some mad woman coming.
Commonly people only realised much later on in life that they had had a problem like depression. 
 

Looking back, Sunil realised there were “warning signs” of his mental health problems when he was at school. At the time he was given sleeping tablets.

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Looking back, Sunil realised there were “warning signs” of his mental health problems when he was at school. At the time he was given sleeping tablets.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Male
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In retrospect, I think the very first inkling that I had some psychiatric problem occurred while I was still in Kenya, because I changed from my ‘O’ level school to a different school to go and do my ‘A’ levels and this one happened to be one where my Dad was actually the Bursar, so he was a member of staff, but not teaching staff, a Bursar.

And whether I did settle down into the new school with largely a new bunch of fellow students I don’t know. But I went through a phrase where I felt that I didn’t really understand anything in the lessons. And it made me, in retrospect, quite depressed and also feeling as if I was inferior. To the extent that, the medical services aren’t very well developed in Kenya, so at that time I was taken by my Dad to a local doctor who was almost like the equal end of a GP in this country and I remember that all he did was prescribe me some sleeping tablets, which I can’t remember whether I even bothered taking or not, because I did have that much sleep disturbance.

But because of my Dad working… in the same school, he arranged for some of the teachers to give me extra tuition outside normal hours. But when we had the end of first term exams in my first term in this school I did actually very well, came almost top in all the subjects, and suddenly that seemed to be the one event that put me back into my normal personality of being very jovial and friendly and basically I recovered from that illness and I never perceived it as being a mental illness at that time. But as I said in retrospect, I think that was the very first warning signs that I had a problem.
 

Later in life when Jane had severe mental health problems, she realised she had experienced abnormal levels of anxiety as a child.

Later in life when Jane had severe mental health problems, she realised she had experienced abnormal levels of anxiety as a child.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
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So I realise that I was quite a fearful child. And I used to remember that I used to have dreams of like pillows suffocating me, and I thought this normal because I’d always had them, but actually that’s got quite a lot to do with sort of fear and depression. 

And I used to have something that I call the dreads and I think those came back when I was really ill, but you know, when you’re a child everything’s normal. So I didn’t know that was abnormal and not ideal. So therefore, it is not surprising that I then felt that I’d been damned by God, because that was really the image that I had of God and I didn’t trust him at all. So that was very much part of my anxiety, was that somehow, and it was actually a very protective factor. It stopped me killing myself, because I was utterly convinced if I killed myself I would go to hell, and I didn’t know how I would ever get better or not go to hell but I didn’t want to die, because I thought that would be what would happen to me, and my husband was aware of that particular bit of psychosis but he didn’t try to dispel that feeling at all, because obviously he could see that it was protective and it was what was keeping me alive so…
Difficult family relations and abuse
Some people, who experienced mental illness in their childhood, said their families were a considerable source of support (for more see ‘Family relationships’). However, other people described difficulties in coping with family life during their childhood, for example, after the death of a parent, or following their parents divorcing. 

Quite a few people mentioned particularly difficult relationships with their parents. Yvonne found she took on a lot of the family responsibilities because her mother was an alcoholic. Yvonne said there was a lot of abuse in the relationship, which resulted in her first breakdown. Helen, who suffered from serious post natal depression at 17 (and after the birth of each of her three children) initially blamed herself for her family’s problems: her dad’s suicide, her brother’s brain tumour, and the adoption of her baby. She was only able to come to terms with these issues much later in life through her faith and with the help of talking treatments (for more see ‘Talking treatments’).

Several people talked about severe emotional, physical and sexual abuse that they had experienced in their childhoods that had had an impact on their mental health as an adult. 
 

Sue was sexually abused by a family friend between the ages of 8-13. She was highly traumatised by this experience and felt it played a major role in the development of severe mental health problems as an adult.

Sue was sexually abused by a family friend between the ages of 8-13. She was highly traumatised by this experience and felt it played a major role in the development of severe mental health problems as an adult.

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Yeah, I’ll start with the sort of background of my mental health problems. I was sexually abused as a child, from the age of 8 to 13 and then I had major trauma when my grandfather died when I was 15 and that seems to have been the onset of my mental health problems. It was pretty evident I had a mood disorder at that age. 

I also had quite a lot of psychological problems. I think because I couldn’t deal with the whole situation, because you have to hold it all in, you can’t really talk to anyone. And I felt the person who was actually conducting the abuse, because he was a family friend knew exactly how to manipulate me, and frighten me, which is what he did, by sayings things like, “You’ll end up in children’s home” and “If you don’t cooperate I’ll have to go to your sister.” And things like that. 

So I think that impact still continued for the rest of my life and I find it, that I constantly, I just cannot leave it behind. 
 

Jenny’s dad died when she was 4 and she said the household she grew up in was difficult, violent and lonely. She describes being assaulted by the village priest “on a regular basis”.

Jenny’s dad died when she was 4 and she said the household she grew up in was difficult, violent and lonely. She describes being assaulted by the village priest “on a regular basis”.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
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I guess partly because I’m currently and have been for the last little while seeing a wonderful psychotherapist, I think it would be true to say that probably whatever happened to me in adult life had its roots in a fairly difficult time in childhood. So I didn’t have the greatest of childhoods because I, because my dad, who, who I was very fond of, died just after my fourth birthday and my mum was six months pregnant at the time. And my younger brother, I’m one of four, I have an older brother and a younger brother and then [name] my youngest brother, and my younger brother had severe cerebral palsy. So, and my mother didn’t cope at all well without my dad. So I grew up in quite a violent, difficult, lonely household. And I also was part of a devout Catholic community and started being assaulted on a regular basis by my village priest from when I started school, which was almost as soon as my dad had died. That was one of the things that happened, I started school early, I got sent to school and the priest was waiting for me every day for a very long period of time after that. And I, this was in quite a rural place and those sorts of things happened to people of course. And I, my mum was much more difficult person. My brothers all got sent away, including my disabled brother, because that was what people thought should happen to children without fathers, they should be sent to strict boarding schools to replace the fathers they had lost. So they went on scholarships to free places.
Teenage years
The teenage years were described by quite a few people as very challenging times. Back then, people didn’t realise their behaviour was out of the ordinary or didn’t want to share their feelings. Cathy said “being a teenager is a difficult time anyway and your emotions are all over the place,” so it can be difficult to tell if there is “some sort of a problem”. Kathleen had depression and a history of self-harm as a teenager, but didn’t want to share how she felt with anyone. It was only later when she worked as a GP, and was made to see someone about her depression, that she talked about it.
 

Catherine Y first became depressed as a teenager. There was no history of mental health in the family and she felt isolated and didn’t feel she could speak to her family.

Catherine Y first became depressed as a teenager. There was no history of mental health in the family and she felt isolated and didn’t feel she could speak to her family.

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
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Well, the story started when I was a teenager. I struggled in school a great deal. I’d been through a lot of problems with family, parental divorce and issues with step-parents and step kind of siblings and, and issues like that. And it was around the age of 14 when I really started to struggle in school and it was very much put down to, I remember one of my school reports said, “You’re in the midst of the doldrums.” Which was an interesting concept because obviously I think young people now, it’s more understood that, for them experiencing depression. So I thought a change of school would be helpful. I was at school down south in England and I came up to Scotland to do my Highers and was still experiencing significant problems with lethargy, apathy, very, poor concentration, inability to study, any, kind of retain any information, memory, problems with sleep, anxiety. And I had taken an overdose when I was 16 when I was, a weekend away from the school, I was at boarding school, and I went into hospital to have treatment. And my family were really quite appalled. There’s no, there’s no kind of, there’s nothing in my family where ever, anybody’s ever had depression or anxiety. Maybe some stress, but they wouldn’t really recognise it as a mental health issue. So one of the duty doctors there, I went back to school to try and, you know, finish my higher study, and one of the doctors saw me every, sort of every six to eight weeks and he felt that my family would be the ones that should support me through any problems. But I was, I was, I was unable to speak to my family. One, because they didn’t understand, but two, just too close to the whole kind of issues and situation that, that related to how I was feeling.

So I had really felt quite isolated. 
For some people, things did improve later in life. Jane, whose father had depression and mother was very strict and had a breakdown, went from being a “happy go lucky teenager” to “a very serious kind of overly conservative Christian teenager”. Although she didn’t remember being depressed, she had written poems, one describing depression, another called “Shrink Back” describing her inability to have physical contact with people. Now in her late 30s she has re-claimed the “passionate enjoying life person” that she once felt she was. 

For others, it was much later in life that they experienced mental illness, or they had “managed” mental illness but found it more difficult to cope as they got older. David Z said that although he had suffered with mental health issues since his teenage years he “coped quite well” with it until his late 30s when he got progressively worse (for more see ‘First becoming unwell’)

Last reviewed January 2018.
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