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.

Age at interview 49

Gender Female

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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.

Age at interview 56

Gender Male

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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

Gender Female

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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.

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

Gender Female

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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.

Age at interview 41

Gender Female

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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‘)

Electroconvulsive treatment (ECT)

Electroconvulsive treatment (ECT) has been used in mental health treatments since the 1940s. Controversy over some aspects of the treatment in the 1950s and '60s...

First becoming unwell

This summary is about when people first noticed they were unwell. You can read elsewhere about the different diagnoses people had and their general experience...