Childhood and adolescence

Although some of the people we spoke to did not mention their childhood or adolescence, many did. A few talked about positive memories they had of growing up, such as Allen who said his childhood was ‘relatively happy’. For others, childhood or their teenage years were a time of change and stress.

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Early childhood
School and growing up
Seeking help

Charlie experienced anxiety attacks in the classroom from Year Five and stopped going to school without telling anyone.

Vanessa grew up on an army base where she felt safe and played outside a lot. Although she was made to feel an outsider at school, she did very well academically.

Early childhood

Most people didn’t experience being unwell until they were in their teens or adulthood. However, some talked about feeling as though they were ‘different’ from their peers from a young age. Lisa described herself as a ‘moody or melancholy child’ and said she didn’t seem to have the same dreams, hopes and ambitions as her peers. A few said they had been unwell in their infancy, and were later told about this by their parents. Ann described her parents noticing ‘things weren’t quite right’ when she was two years old. When she was a young child, she heard distressing voices that caused her a lot of anxiety. Later, she experienced visual hallucinations, and said she didn’t make friends at school because she already had ‘invisible friends’.

Tanai described being ‘very repetitive, very obsessive’ as a child and used to organise her toys rather than play with them. She didn’t like people and remembers crying and feeling sad for no reason.

A few people had difficult relationships with their parents. As a child, Maria had to look after her Greek parents who did not speak English. She was her father’s carer, and always felt a lot was expected of her. Simon’s mother was herself unwell and she attempted suicide when he was three. Simon said his mother didn’t recognise her own illness and during his childhood, she would tell him he was ‘evil’ and ‘sick’.

Although painful memories from childhood could be difficult to recall, a few people described how being mistreated or abused had effected their mental health. Jenny described being left with another family for three months when she was six years old while her parents went overseas, and said the other family ‘played mental tricks with my mind’. Although she has difficulty remembering what happened, she said, ‘I am sure that I had a very traumatic experience there and that’s probably impacted on my later experience of mental health issues’.

Simon, who is transgender, talked about being abused by a doctor in his early teens and suspects he was abused by an uncle whom he never felt comfortable around. He’s ‘blanked out everything to do with’ his uncle.*

* Please be aware that some people may find the content of this clip distressing.

School and growing up

School was an important part of childhood for many people. While some found school stimulating and did well, others found school uninteresting or felt that it had exacerbated their distress. Ann described herself as having a ‘lack of devotion to school’ and coming home and ‘sort of indulg[ing] my fantasy world rather than doing my homework’. For some, anxiety over achieving well at school was a big part of their childhood. Lisa achieved good marks at school but said ‘part of that pressure’ to do well and get into university contributed to the way she ‘handled’ her eating disorder and self-harming.

The pressure of attending Greek school on Saturdays and church on Sundays on top of mainstream school meant Maria had no time to rest. By age 20 she ‘couldn’t cope’ and was admitted to hospital.

Sometimes the stress of school was made worse by other serious events happening in a young person’s life. Niall described being bullied at school and experienced anxiety from the age of 11. He said his anxiety worsened after a fire in his family home. He felt that this contributed to the development of obsessive compulsive disorder, with which he was later diagnosed. By the age of 16, it had become a ‘major disability’.

The transition from primary to secondary school was mentioned as a critical moment for quite a few people. People mentioned peer pressure, challenging friendships or struggling with the demands of secondary school. For Tanai, primary school had been ‘normal’ and she was ‘pretty good’ until she started high school, then ‘school just went pretty much downhill from there’ and she was ‘very, very depressed’. Her ‘self-esteem just plummeted’ and she attempted suicide when she was 14.

Allen described having a happy childhood and enjoying school. Everything changed when he moved to a private school where his father was a teacher and felt that the pressure to succeed led to his ‘unwellness’.

The transition from primary to secondary school was difficult for Nicky. She experienced bullying and ‘cliquey-ness’ and she found it difficult to make friends.

Early adolescence was also a time when bodily changes and starting romantic relationships created new challenges for people. For Simon, who is transgender and underwent a sex change in his 40s, the changes to his body through puberty were accelerated when he was made to take high doses of hormonal drugs as part of a ‘Tall Girl program’ to try to restrict his height: ‘I was having problems emotionally, because I was being put through a puberty I wasn’t ready for’. Lisa’s moodiness as a child came ‘to the fore’ in early adolescence when she started making herself sick and self-harming. When she had her first serious relationship at 19 she described experiencing an ‘almost overflow of emotion’ and being sick was a way to ‘purge it’ and ‘restore this whole status quo’.

Allen said he experienced a ‘big change in personality’ from Year Nine to Ten. He was competitive, wanted to do well in school and in sports and be popular with girls, but he hadn’t grown physically.

Seeking help

A few people spoke about the difficulties of seeking help. Many talked about ‘hiding’ the fact that they were unwell or not telling anyone how they felt, while some used recreational drugs. Allen didn’t get a good school report in Year Nine when he was struggling and said his school was unsupportive and didn’t ‘really understand mental illness’ and the school’s ‘way of solving difficulties was to be critical’. Nicky said her school ‘didn’t really care’ and didn’t want any ‘nuisance or frustration’.

David felt he couldn’t go to see the school counsellor because of peer pressure and because his parents, who were teachers at the school, would find out. It took a ‘complete breakdown’ before he received help.