Some people felt loved and supported by their parents and felt they had ‘normal’ childhoods, but others felt their parents had not properly cared for them. Some people said that as children they had been very sensitive to events and upheavals such as conflicts in the family, moving to another area, growing up in care, or being at boarding school. Several had felt lonely and isolated for various reasons, e.g. feeling different from other children, being anxious and lacking social skills, or having been bullied (See more about traumatic experiences such as sexual and physical abuse in ‘Views about causes and traumatic experiences’).
When people looked back on their childhood, they often saw problems now that they didn’t see at the time. For example, some said that they had felt anxious, depressed or alone, or that they had been heavily criticised at school or home. Some people looked back at their teenage years and either thought that personal changes (e.g. being moody, aggressive, ‘rebellious’ or withdrawn) could be part of being a teenager, or in hindsight could have been the start of mental health problems. A number of people only gradually realised the lasting impact of extreme events like childhood sexual abuse on their wellbeing.
Talking about childhood
Although some people talked about having ‘normal’ childhoods, such as spending time with friends, going to school then leaving school for work or university, others felt that there had always been something ‘wrong’ from an early age. A few talked about the difficulties of having to make different friends at new schools. A few people said they had spent much time on their own as children, either walking, spending time in parks or woods, or listening to music. A couple of people also mentioned that they had learning difficulties at school that were not recognised at the time.
Graham works for 'HUG' (Highland User Group), is separated, and has a son. Ethnic Background' White British.
My Dad was in the Air Force so we moved around the country a lot, and then he started selling yachts. I lived on the South Coast. I went to a public school. ...I was quite a... separate child. But I had quite a good upbringing. In my teens and late adolescence I tended to say I had an awful upbringing but actually in retrospect it wasn’t too bad. I did a lot of climbing, a lot of sailing, a lot of walking. Depending on where we lived, we did different things, in Norfolk in was all kind of beaches with dogs and other schools it was walking along rivers and listening to punk music and trying to be rebellious and not really understanding what was happening, and just the general to and fro of growing up. You know, the sort of family moved around a lot.
And how did you get on at school with all this moving?
It varied. It was completely different in different places. It was quite a strange experience in the initial school I was extremely quiet. I was very confused by school and I didn’t really know how to participate. I would just sit there and do nothing. And it, I adapted to different places in different ways. When we lived in [place name], there was a whole group of us around the houses where we lived and where we, a horrible gang, did all sorts of things, smashing windows on a building site and all sorts of things and rushing round on our bikes and climbing trees and playing war games, and all the things that young people do. The next place I lived it was Norfolk and there we had almost no friends, initially anyway. And school was a complete mystery. I’d moved from one school where you wrote, the way we write nowadays, to Norfolk where you wrote with all these curly letters and things. And it was like a completely brand new alphabet and discipline was completely different. You got smacked if you stopped writing and stuff like that. So it was very strange and I just shut up there. And initially I made friends and then I stopped making friends and I spent most of the time in my memory hidden in an alleyway in the school. There was a boy with a hole in the heart, who had a blue, a blue face, and he sat at one end of the alley and stared into space and I would sit at the other end of the alley staring into space. And that was basically school then. But then I went away to public school and I wish I hadn’t, but initially, initially it was very hard, but I made a lot of friends there, and got very used to it, and it was a good place. There were lots of people I liked and got on with. I would have preferred not to have been away from home, but it was a place where there were people who I could get on with.
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Stuart is a political activist/documentary photographer/writer. He lives with his partner. Ethnic background/nationality' White British
I was at school in the late sixties, and all through the seventies, and early eighties and... children at that time, if they had problems it wasn’t recognised. You were just treated as bad kids, and disciplined all the time, rather than you know, having people wanting to talk to you, and help you.
So, you know, I was thought of as a very bad child, who used to misbehave, but it wasn’t anything like that at all. It was because of family problems. So I had to let it out somewhere. Because I was at school every day of the week, you know, when you’re a kid that’s most of your life is at school, so it had to come out somewhere, and so no I didn’t get any help at all.
I tried turning to my, my mother, my family had a very Victorian approach to mental health at the time. From a young age, I tried to express that I felt depressed and I was just told that I was being selfish and that only selfish people get depressed, because... [exhales breath] it was, you know, I was being self indulgent by being depressed, and that sort of thing.
So at about what age did you start to feel depressed?
I think probably around about six or seven, I can remember and also around that time I started to have hearing problems. And, I was in and out of hospital quite a lot, and I had various operations on my ears. I used to have grommets put in my ears. ...and that would mean at the time, you know, you probably sort of had two or three weeks off of school. And I can remember sort of going back to school and totally, this was in junior school, and just, you know, three weeks is a big gap, and I just would go back into class and I was just completely lost, where everybody would seem more advanced with what they’d learnt in those three weeks.
And so I started to feel, you know, I was starting to fall behind in education from a very young age, and nobody ever sat down with me, and let me know what was going on. So I was getting depressed because I started to feel stupid. I started to feel thick. I was under-achieving. And I started to feel very lost, but there was no support for me at the time. So…
Several people had been bullied as a child. For some this was only occasional or they felt they were ‘separate’ from other children, others felt that their childhoods were dominated by extreme forms of bullying – a couple of people described it as torture - and that they still felt the effects of this in their adult life (for more detail see 'Views about causes and traumatic events').
William took medical retirement but does volunteer work for Rethink, is single and has no children. Ethnic Background' White British.
I was bullied constantly. I think I only escaped about one year. But in every school I went to, I was bullied, except for, I think there was just one time when I was in north London that I didn’t get bullied. And I, a lot of it was like more like torture than being bullied, I suppose. And then also I think, you know, having my parents really not being very good psychiatrists in that they weren’t that type of thinking people, you know. And they weren’t clever in that sort of way that I’m just the opposite, and they weren’t able to... they’re only, you know, I mean they never really talked to me, encouraged me to have any kind of friendship or anything with them really. I think my mother thought that children [laughter in voice] should be seen and not heard really. She thought, you know, very primitive thing, and they did tend to be like that, yes, and also... I think also another thing about that they hated one another. And I used to have watch them fighting always. You know, fighting constantly all my life really that I can remember. Sometimes daily, you know. They might skip a day or two. And... and then, oh yes, then there was this thing about that I hated the school so much, in a way my Mum helped me to survive, because or my Dad even sometimes, because what I would do is, you know, I would ask them for days off, and they’d give me a letter saying I was sick literally. But really, they should have really, you know, done more than that. They should have tried to figure out what to do, which is better then, you know, me pretending to be sick, and then I had asthma. Once you had asthma, you know how to pretend to have an attack [cough]. And I used to do that as well. So I used to sort of do the three day working week [laughs]. Yes, I was just thinking about something in politics about the three day working week. That once existed I used to do this three day school week or something. So I think I must have missed, huge, masses amounts at school. But that helped me to survive, because I just wonder really I might have… I remember at times, actually sometimes just crying about the bullying, when it was getting really too much.
Many people remembered that as children they struggled to express or know what they were feeling. People talked about feeling empty, alone, or feeling things like a ‘blackness’ inside them. Some people were clear that they had mental health problems as children. Others felt that they were always labelled the problem child or that they felt more emotional than most. Many also said that people around them – like their parents – were often (although not always) unaware of their growing mental distress. Sometimes parents did not believe their child had problems, or could not get others to believe their child had problems.
Nada does voluntary work, is single and has no children. Ethnic background' British Indian
Well I’d say I’ve always be like very emotional like for as long as I can remember and actually like I have sort of memories of feeling, you know, pretty down sort of down from like a really really young age as well and I guess it’s more from being like a really sensitive person and stuff and like I don’t know my family, my family environment, my home environment never really felt very sort of safe or secure really and I don’t know, gosh it’s really difficult thinking that far back but...
Why didn’t your family environment feel safe or secure?
Well... it was just I don’t know my parents like, you know, were sort of were not in a very happy relationship, you know, and... there was kind of always sort of fights and arguments and stuff like that and like to be fair I tried to sort of spend as much time away from home as possible so I remember kind of like, you know, always kind of doing things like, you know, outside activities like being away but it took up quite a lot of energy as well. But I, you know, yes like I spent a lot of time outside of the sort of house like I didn’t, I didn’t ever really look forward to coming back there and stuff.
I blotted quite a lot, it’s almost like memory wise, I blocked quite a lot of it out and then it would sort of like come back sometimes but like yes like my parents were quite sort of, you know, like violent towards each other but it was more also just kind of, I mean they would, they’d sort of fight over sort of everything pretty much and like and that would be inside and outside the home as well so it would be quite public sometimes as well.
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Rachel does voluntary work, is single and has one son who is 7. Ethnic Background' White British.
I wonder if you could start off by telling me what life was like before you had any contact at all with mental health services?
Well I didn’t have contact until I was 19 and that was when my parents split up. So that seems to have been the trigger. But before then... people have asked me since what was our childhood like, and looking back I can remember being quite depressed at times, and that was quite funny on reflection so but I had a normal schooling. I went to a convent school and the nuns were aggressive and they hit you, and we had to get the nuns out of the school with my parents help. Because I got hit across the face with a bunch of keys and my Mum had to ring up and the nuns were taken out and we had to write a letter to the Sister Superior France and that was when I was about 14, and I still stayed on the school because they were taken over by a school of governors. And that was until I was 16.
And then when I was went to sixth form, I went to a mixed sixth form in [name of place] and so we moved and my Dad had come out the army and that was fabulous because it was boys [laughs]. And that was a whole new world. And I didn’t study very much and I did my ‘A’ levels but I had to do retakes. So that was quite hard.
Ron's family ‘didn’t do hugs’ - they did not show affection physically. He felt that various things like that and the sexual abuse he experienced when a child, combined to leave him unable to ‘do relationships’ when he was an adult.
It was hard for people to put into words what was happening at the time, but they spoke about how they seemed to change with the onset of mental health problems. Some people remember feeling different' two said it felt like ‘heat stroke’, or feeling angry and not knowing why at the time (for more detail on the onset of mental distress see ‘Onset of severe mental distress’). Others described changes in their behaviour, feeling anxious, or starting to hear voices when they were very young. Some people assumed that everyone heard voices, or that they shouldn’t talk about their voices.
Jenni is 30, lives in London, works in business and has no children. She describes herself as mixed race, lives in a shared house and is currently doing a number of courses. Ethnic Background' Mixed
Well growing up I was always very very happy person. And I was adopted, and I lived with my adopted family. I had two younger brothers. I was very much took care of my younger brothers and my parents were both career Mum and Dad. And I went to very academic school, and I always got good grades and then when I hit teens
Yeah, I was a moody teenager and... Things just went down hill. I was, like dressed like a Goth, and then I had these like, very, very intense close relationships with girlfriends, like best friends, and then when it got to sixth form, I was just really depressed.
And no one seemed to care, you know, and then by the time I got to university it was like a comedy of error. Like my whole just turned awful, like every… you know, when everything, you turn a corner and the whole, the whole thing’s gone wrong, and it’s like a big mess in front of you.
So this went on for a few years, and then I went to the doctor and he gave me a leaflet about anxiety. So it was a case of first I was depressed, and then I had anxiety. But he didn’t treat me, or tell me anything. He just said, “Come back.” But I never went back, I just went away with, thinking that I was, that I had anxiety.
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Janey is a mental health trainer, married and living with her husband. Ethnic Background' White British.
I just found life difficult as an adolescent. I had a horrible time, which was so lonely. Didn’t really have friends. I hated school. Just couldn’t find a comfortable way of living. that just didn’t go away. So at the weekends I would spend hours and hours just walking, just, I suppose trying to get away from what was inside me and of course that never works. ...and I suppose in the end... I just managed to live round it.
What was inside you that you were trying to get away from do you think?
I really don’t know what was inside me at all that I was trying to get away from... A feeling of black, nothingness. Later the voices.
No I really don’t know. Just, just... terribly uncomfortable.
Did you give a name to it?
I suppose when I was an adolescent, I always just thought, oh I’m one of those kids that’s just, gets it worst than most. And I think my parents regarded it as just really bad teenage tantrums or teenage angst stuff.
And so nobody really was that interested in doing anything about it.
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Georgina works as a consultant, trainer and advocate. She has been a mental health service user and a carer to her youngest son, who developed paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 16. He is now 35. Ethnic Background' White British.
I wondered if you could start off by telling me what life was like with [your son] before you had any contact with mental health services before …?
Oh horrendous is the answer to that to be quite honest. I had a phone call from his history teacher when he was about 15 saying that he was very worried about [son’s name]’s mental state. We’d noticed that [son’s name] was changing and, and acting a bit strangely at times. But I put it down to, you know, being a teenager, and, and, so did my husband. And it took sort of about another fourteen months before we actually got help for him. I went to the doctors. The first time he said, “You’ll have to get your son round here.” And I tried to explain to him that my son was six foot two and, that [son’s name], if I said to him you need to see a doctor, he would say, well there’s nothing wrong with me. Why would I need to see a doctor, it’s you that’s mad, not me. He actually went out a few months after that, so he’s now about fifteen and a half, getting on for sixteen, and bought a motorbike and would go out on it every night with just a crash helmet. He had no friends by then, just a crash helmet, no protective clothing and he was actually knocked off of it on the A128 and had sixteen stitches in his leg. I used to plead with him every night not to go out on it, and he’d say, “You don’t understand. It blows my thoughts away.” So he was trying to get rid of what was going on in his head. And there were two other... appointments with the GP. The second time, he said, “Unless he’s a danger to himself or someone else, there is nothing I can do to help.” Why things have to get to that sort of dangerous stage I would like to know, when it’s just a matter of writing a referral letter. And then the third time, he was then over 16, and a friend came with me to the doctors. Because he came home one day, and he was, standing in the middle of the lawn, and it was raining so had, that the, the rain was bouncing back up again. And he stood there for about an hour, and he was absolutely drenched to the skin. Long hair at the time, it was stuck to his face, and I thought, I’ve got to get some help.
Whether people had experienced difficulties as children or whether they had felt their childhoods had been mainly happy, most people felt that looking back on their experiences could help them understand more about their problems and who they were today.