Here young people talk about their relationships with parents and family and how they felt depression or low mood had affected these relationships.
Many young people described complex relationships within the family, and some felt that these problems had triggered off or contributed to their depression and low mood in the first place. Some people had experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse at home, been bullied, witnessed messy break ups between parents, and been bereaved. Others described otherwise unsettled and tense home lives or said they ‘had never got on’ with their parent(s) or a stepparent. A few had experienced abandonment or rejection in childhood which had left them with difficulties trusting people later on: “My dad walked out when I was three. And I never got over that, ever. I don’t think I’ll ever properly get over it, but at least now I’ve dealt with it a bit.”
See also ‘Childhood and life before depression‘.
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Some parents had struggled with their own problems: bereavement, relationship breakdowns and illness. A few said that depression or mental health problems ran in their family. For some this was a positive thing as their parents had first-hand experience of how best to help and young people also felt relieved to know that depression wasn’t something they had ‘brought on’ themselves. One woman whose mother experienced severe mental health problems had been a full-time carer for her mum from an early age.
One man described the lack of attention and care he felt from his dad: “Thinking back I’d think over time just because he was kind of a big control freak in our family and, you know, with that he couldn’t really see, he couldn’t really accept it, he couldn’t really open up obviously and say ‘look, I’m proud of you, son’.”
Difficulties at home caused drifts and arguments between some young people and their families. One person describes how bad things had gotten in the family: “It would end up probably fighting, things getting broken, police getting involved, or one of us getting arrested, I’ve been arrested loads of times from criminal damage for the house.”
For some young people, problems at home had gotten so bad that they had completely “fallen out”, usually with one parent or one side of the family and had decided to leave or been “kicked out”. Some lived in supported housing, one woman was placed in care, and a few had been “bunking” with their friends.
Some people preferred to have less contact with their parent(s) or some family members, but most said that the one thing they hoped for was to ‘build bridges’ with their parents and to be able to move back home again. They felt ‘alone’ and unsupported without their family around: “Even though it’s great having your own flat I’d love to be back at home. So love it to be back at home. To go back to like when I was like 12, 13, not have the arguments, yeah, you’d still have your mother and daughter arguments, but at the time, you’ll think ‘right I know what’s going to happen now, so just shut up’. Just walk away, instead of me arguing back, just walk out the door and that argument would have been done with.”
And another woman talked about her broken relationship with her mum: “It’s like, I get depressed as well when you just sit there, and you just want your Mum there. You just want your Mum to be there by your side, ‘cos that’s like one person that knows you well and, you just want that bit of love.”
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Understanding depression in the family
Several young people said their parents didn’t understand mental health problems or depression, especially in the beginning, and some felt their parents had underestimated the seriousness of their problems.
A couple said their parents put their mood down to “being a mopey teenager” or having “the teenage blues”.
One woman describes how her mum was too ill to notice her mental health problems: “She doesn’t seem to realise how much of a big effect she’s had on my life in a bad way. She didn’t even notice that I was depressed; I had to go to her and tell her that I was feeling bad. She didn’t even notice.”
One woman explained at length how mental health problems are “a taboo” in the South Asian community and how her parents couldn’t accept her depression or self-harm because in her culture “they don’t exist”. She found it difficult to find support and said she knew no one else in her community with a mental health problem.
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Some parents had been “upset” or “angry” when they found out that their children were self-harming. Many had found out unexpectedly and unintentionally which had added to their shock. Young people felt that “shouting” and “getting angry” only added to an already difficult situation. Some said this had led to their parents “checking up” on them which in turn had broken the trust on both sides. One woman said it was difficult that her dad couldn’t understand self-harm at all and thought it was “pathetic and selfish”.
Sara explains how her whole family found out she was self-harming. (Read by an actor).
Many young people described feeling “guilty” about how their low mood or depression affected family dynamics. They felt that their sadness or negativity “rubbed off” on others or brought others down. One man said, “I’m sure if that is a universal thing, not being able to really connect with parents really just for fear of letting them down or anything.”
One woman described feeling “selfish” by having mental health problems and another felt ‘sorry’ for her family for putting up with her depression and OCD. Some said they didn’t always tell their parents how they were feeling or covered up any problems out of the fear of upsetting them more. A couple felt they couldn’t talk about their problems at home because their parents had “bigger problems” to deal with. They also worried about their parents seeing themselves as ‘bad parents’ and didn’t want their parents to blame themselves.
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Emotional and practical support
For many young people, their family and especially parents had been the biggest source of support in going through depression. Parents were often the first ones young people had talked to about depression. In some cases, it was the parents who had noticed their changing mood and had brought it up themselves.
Beth felt really lucky her whole family supported her in their different ways.
Craigs worked hard to patch things up with his parents and they can speak openly now.
Emotionally, young people found it most important to know that their parents were “always there for me”, being patient and supportive. Being available to talk things through was important too. Some preferred to talk to one of the parents only or a grandparent, for example. One woman said talking to her mum can sometimes be more helpful than to a therapist: “When we talk, I think even better than any, any therapist could, she really understands me because we get each other on the same wavelength. Sometimes it feels like a waste of breath talking because she knows what I’m feeling and I know what she’s feeling, you know we’re so similar.”
A couple of people said how they felt their family supported them whichever route they wanted to take in life because, “Yeah as they say, at the end of the day they just want me to be happy.”
Some young people pointed out that they appreciated the support from their parents, even though they weren’t always able to accept it at that time. They sometimes just preferred to be “given space” to think things through.
Tasha says her family is very supportive of her but she’s not always able to receive their help.
On a practical level, parents had helped them with transportation to clinics, attended their therapy sessions when appropriate or made appointments. Especially for those with social phobias, having help with public transport had been essential to get out and about.
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Some said that going through depression had pulled their family “closer” together. They said they had never before realised how important family was for them. Going through tough times reassured them that they could always rely on parents. Many also described how dealing with depression had made them communicate more openly as a family. Some people felt that especially because they had good and happy family lives, they found it hard to not have “a reason” or a cause for depression and felt that they should not struggle with depression.
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Some parents had also been helpful in finding out information about depression and sourcing out counselling options and other forms of help for young people.
A few parents had sought help for themselves. One woman described her family’s long battle to get support and therapy for the whole family, to be able to cope. They felt there were very few services available aimed at helping the whole family.
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Siblings and wider family
Siblings also played a big part in young people experience of living with depression. They commonly said that their brothers and sisters had a different way of dealing with depression than parents; a bit more distant, lighthearted or “jokey”. One man described how the fact that his relationship with his brothers has stayed the same throughout had been a big help: “Sometimes you need that, semblance of normalcy, and it’s having a normal conversation with someone that doesn’t involve the questions as to ‘how are you feeling now?'”
Some said their siblings had been “too young” to process things. They had felt protective over younger siblings and didn’t tell them everything at the time. A couple of people’s siblings had developed mental health problems later on and they said they were then better able to understand and support them.
For some, relations with siblings had been more difficult. They felt their siblings “worried” for them or were “angry”, for example if they had taken an overdose. A couple of people felt their siblings had been unsupportive or didn’t understand depression. A few people felt left out in the family and that their siblings were always at the centre of attention, sometimes because of a chronic illness, disability, or for being the “clever one”. One woman said it was really tough feeling like she was “the only one in the family with all these problems” and another said she never felt her parents “appreciated” her in the same way as her sister. One woman described how she felt her mum and sister would gang up against her which had made her feel “singled out” and “hypersensitive”.
Holly felt like ‘the black sheep in the family’
People also talked about the role of other family members and the extended family. Grandparents had a particularly important role in young people’s lives. Many had experienced bereavement in the wider family, and some identified losing close family members as one of the triggers of their depression and low mood. A few people said they felt “uncomfortable” around their extended family, or they didn’t want to talk to grandparents about low mood because they were “more traditional”.
B lost her Nan 10 years ago but it ‘feels like yesterday’ to her.
We also talked to one woman who was a mum herself. She said more than anything, she wanted to protect her child from being affected by her low mood and that, “When you have a child, you have to function. It forces you to function, depression or no depression.”