Experiences of depression and recovery in Australia

Stories of growing up

Stories of depression were built-in to people’s overall life stories. All the people we talked with reflected on their lives and looked into their past for clues to make sense of how their future lives would unfold. Many people described their childhood as a happy period when they felt cared for and loved. Ivan said' ‘My childhood was joyful, happy and carefree, on a beautiful island, beautiful climate with my parents whom I adored and who admired me’. For them, it was events in their adult life which they believed contributed to their depression. In contrast, others described feeling a sense of puzzling sadness from early on in life.
Many thought childhood family experiences had contributed to their depression. Clinton described growing up feeling that his way of ‘looking at the world was different to others’; that he had a ‘sort of pain in my experience of life that other people didn’t seem to have’ and experienced difficult relationships with his family. A few people described inconsistencies in parenting approaches, for example being physically punished by one parent and protected by the other. Sometimes this left them confused about ‘rights and wrongs’. Safra, growing up in Malaysia, said her mother had physically punished her for no apparent reason, while her father had been very loving: ‘So I had this growing up of happiness from my father and fear from my mother’.
A few people grew up families with a parent with an alcohol dependency which caused family troubles, including breakups and emotional and physical turmoil.
Traumatic events in childhood happened outside of the family environment for some people. Two men talked about being sexually abused in their childhood, without their families’ knowledge. For Paul, a work training course which involved watching graphic material about children being sexually abused triggered memories of his own childhood abuse. His powerful reaction started a chain of psychological reactions that, in his view, created his depression.
Other people told of early experiences of family breakdown or death. Louise explained, ‘my parents divorced, when I was 14 and 15, and that was a big, a big shock and to everyone in our family and a big change for all of us’. Kymberly described a long-lasting sense of loss following her father’s suicide; Debra felt lost after her father died when she was young girl. Stewart lived through his parents’ divorce, abandonment by his biological father and the death of his loving stepfather. Although his mother was caring, Stewart said she had her own problems: ‘Well she was an alcoholic, there was no two ways about that’. As a consequence the family went through a lot of financial hardship. Others talked about experiencing the death of a parent at a young age, grief following bitter divorces and physical, psychological and emotional abuse.
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Kim Hai became involved in her mother’s love affair as a ‘letter writer’ which she felt was detrimental to her emotional wellbeing as she was very close to her father. Another woman lived with a mother with serious mental health condition that was never explained to her. In addition she felt her father was relying on her for support and never protected her from often troubled family circumstances. Others struggled at school, or lived through physical illness and hospitalisation in childhood. Andrew described having a caring mother, but missed having more of her attention as she had to also care for his siblings and deal with her own depression.
A few people grew up in families where one parent was chronically ill which led to problems such as financial hardship. Some women assumed the role of caring for the rest of family due to prolonged illness of a parent from a very young age. This left them with a sense their childhood and youth was different from that of their peers and they felt they missed out on important phases of their lives.
Others felt neglected which left long-lasting consequences, most often a sense of oneself as not being worth other peoples’ attention. A few people, both men and women, ended up in unloving and abusive relationships as adults. For a few women, this was seen as an escape from their pain-inflicted families. Some people talked about going through problems and crises at school, being bullied and harassed, but never felt supported by their parents, even when they knew what their children were going through. Shaz said: ‘Mum knew I was unhappy but she didn’t really, like we never had that sort of mother-daughter relationship where we talked about things. And I had all these questions and I wanted someone to talk to but I had no one. So I kept it all inside’. A few people traced their feelings of being depressed to an early age and some attributed this to having been neglected by their parents.
For a few women who looked up to their fathers when they were growing up, this relationship was problematic. They were looking for support and encouragement but were met by unsupportive responses. This had a lasting effect on their self-esteem and their belief in their own abilities. Most of these women were academically successful and ambitious as young girls, but were advised to enter into traditionally female-dominated professions such as nursing or teaching. Amelia said that even though she was one on the best students in her class, she often thought ‘maybe I'd kind of just be valued more or, loved more or something like that if I wasn't stupid’. Most of these women became professional women and high achievers despite the discouragement they experienced. However, a few commented that their experiences were devastating, and they kept living their lives trying to please everybody, as they had ‘lived to please’ their parents when young.
A couple of women who were the youngest child in their families felt that they were a disappointment to their parents, their fathers in particular, for not having been born boys.
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Polygamy caused distress for couple of women. For Akello, her father taking a second wife and having subsequent children cast a shadow over a previously happy childhood. She blamed herself, as she thought she was not good enough a child for him. Her experiences in the boarding school she was sent to were unhappy too. This led to low self-esteem throughout her life. For Safra, the effect of her husband taking a second wife after they moved to Australia from Malaysia and their consequent divorce after she refused to accept this as a ‘cultural norm’, was devastating.

Although many people we talked with considered their childhood experience as having contributed to their depression, others with similar experiences did not connect these to their depression, but cited many other causes (see Views about causes’). 

Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.



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