Depression and abuse

Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—especially in childhood—often leads to depression, shame and low self-esteem. These in turn increase the chance of having more abusive relationships in adult life.

In this summary people describe the abuse they experienced and how it affects their depression. Reading about these experiences might be disturbing. Throughout and at the end of this summary we provide links to other topics that explore how these people coped with and heal from depression and abuse.

Abuse and depression in early family life

Most people who talked about abuse reported that it began at a young age in their family life. Parental (or step parental) alcoholism and mental illness played a significant role both in this abuse—and in later depression. Brendan’s stepfather was an “abusive alcoholic” and his mother was “simultaneously a victim and an abuser,” who “hasn’t done much in the way of protecting me and my brother.” Marty learned at a young age that his alcoholic mother could enable his truancy and self-medicating, while his aggressive father “hit me, you know, he really abused me and that’s how it was.” Some people we interviewed who had experienced abuse early in life said they had suicidal thoughts, problems with substance abuse, and/or themselves replicated abusive relationships as they became young adults.

Jackson attributes his 'heart wounds' to the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse perpetrated by an abusive mother and her associates.
Interview Transcript

My mom was a very abusive person and tend to attract other people into our family’s life that were abusive as well. And So, I experienced a lot of repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse. And so I think that was kind of– That set up the foundation for my, my heart wounds and my depression and just my outlook on life. And then I was also questioning. I started to feel different sexually like with my sexuality as a preteen. And so that was, that was kind of dangerous. It felt very dangerous. I wanted to ex— like I was curious about it. You know, no one ever talked about it. You know, no one ever talked about what it meant to be gay. Except that, it was a very sinful thing. And then like for me, school was a safe place, but even going to school and, and like I had a friend of mine who was kind of coming out too as a young gay man and like he was automatically a target for ridicule and physical abuse. And so I became invisible and suicidal for many years and attempted many times.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Jackson works in customer service and lives in a rented house with a roommate and a cat. Ethnic background is Fijian Indian.

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Many people we interviewed experienced emotional abuse in early life. Some felt they could never live up to their parents’ expectations. The low self-esteem that resulted contributed to their depression, and led them to seek approval elsewhere, self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs, or engage in a range of self-destructive behaviors.

Maya says her Chinese mother's untreated mental illness, cultural beliefs and expectations combined to create emotional abuse throughout her childhood.

… my family was very verbally abusive, so my mother has threatened to kill me literally more times than I can count. I’ve been disowned literally more times than I can count. I’ve had the cops called on me at least three times for things like talking.

And it’s because she only sometimes takes her medication and she has not ever stuck with any form of therapy. And I know a lot of this comes from, she had a mother who clearly had mental health issues.

There comes into a lot of cultural issues is that my mother, you know, is that I give you life, I can take it away and you know, threaten to kill someone in China is or South Korea or a lot of you know East Asian countries, isn’t an unusual threat to be made, but, you know, it’s part of sort of like a cultural thing.

And so I lived in a highly critical household, that regardless of how many…. There’s actually, there’s, I mean, it’s becoming more and more common to see this, there’s an even an episode of the Simpson’s where I forget Marge’s sister adopts this little Asian girl Ling and she is doing spectacularly. She’s like, painting something and playing a flute and keeping plates spinning in the air and they’re like, “Look at what a good girl Ling is.” And she just like whispers to whoever’s in the room, “Help me.”

Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

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(To learn more about how people moved past these early life experiences, see ‘Depression and healing’.)


Some young adults attributed their depression and their risky behavior to the fact that their parents neglected them. As Ryan put it, “my parents weren’t there for me.” Neglect—the absence of attention—might be the flip side of verbal and physical abuse. As Devin describes, “My mother was the neglectful parent… So I just took stuff that I needed and left because I was feeling like I was unneeded and unwanted there.” Julia explains, “In high school my parents separated. My mom started dating and she worked a full time job. So she left me home a lot … It was just kind of depressing—that stage in your life is already difficult and it’s a huge transition, both physically, emotionally and socially.”

Julia describes how her mother's not being there for her contributed to her depression and to her risky behaviors in adolescence.
Interview Transcript

… I felt not invincible, but I felt like I could get away with a lot because my mom wasn’t home. So I was pretty truant and I would often miss school to just hang out with my friends or I would have parties a lot and my friends were not very good influences, so they would bring over alcohol and stuff like that and my mom never even knew about it because she was never home.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Julia is a family therapist. She is single and lives alone in an apartment with a cat and a dog. She takes medication and sees a therapist. She is Caucasian.

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(To learn how Julia copes with the fact that her parents were not there for her, see ‘Depression and healing’ and ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’.)

Being placed in foster care was another consequence of parental neglect. Both Ryan and Leanna note that knowing their parent was not there for them left them hopeless, insecure and empty. These feelings, in turn, led to self-destructive and risky behaviors.

Leanna links her depression both to neglect in childhood and to self-destructive behaviors in her teenage years.
Interview Transcript

I realized that like with my depression, that a lot of insecurities came from not really having the parental unit that I needed growing up. I started becoming insecure, so having to fill up that hole with the depression. I was very promiscuous throughout middle school and high school, early college years until about age nineteen was when I decided that wasn’t a good way. It wasn’t making me feel any better. It was making me feel worse and I was just like ‘what am I doing?’

Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.

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(See ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’ to learn how helping others made Leanna happy.)

Ryan was placed in foster care when he was eight years old, and continued to struggle with family issues even after being adopted.
Interview Transcript

I was in foster care and I got adopted into a new home. And this new home was like really great up until probably a year ago, once as I described I kind of hit rock bottom with drug usage, and I understand that might have been mostly my fault but I kind of started getting these feelings that my parents weren’t there for me and I guess I started feeling hopeless again and a lot more depressed than I had in my entire life. And I became very self-destructive. I started doing things like hitting myself and I didn’t really realize like why I was doing it I kept telling myself, “I don’t want to do this.” You know [laughter] but it, it just got worse. And so eventually my parents were like, “You’re too much to handle.” So they kicked me out. And that’s the, that’s where I’m at right now.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 19
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Ryan lives with his girlfriend and her family in a suburb but is looking to move. He works as a janitor. He is White.

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(See ‘Depression and healing’ to learn how for Ryan it is important to realize that his depression is nobody’s fault.)

Bullying and depression

Bullying is another common element in the cycle between abuse and depression. Ben explains, “I was an easy target for bullying because I had low-confidence,” and then bullying “made my self-esteem lower and my depression worse.”

Brendan describes how growing up in an abusive alcoholic family set him up for bullying, and later his depressive and suicidal thoughts.

My stepdad was– He’s an abusive alcoholic like many. I’m not particularly fond of him.

He was angry, he was an alcoholic. I think he also had issues with depression. But it was just not a good environment for me to grow up in especially once when my mom sort of started playing along.

She’s kind of simultaneously a victim and an abuser in the scenario. She is definitely being abused at least psychologically by my stepdad, and again, occasionally physically. And she has, I think—she’s internalized and she’s enacted it and she hasn’t really been– She hasn’t done much in the way of, you know, preventing it or protecting me and my brother. She would often get drunk also. She’s also an alcoholic in my opinion. She’d get drunk with him a lot in those early years. And the two of them will get into screaming matches while me and my brother laid low and tried to ignore it.

I had the social awkwardness and the handicaps and everything that come with, with being a child in an abused home. On top of that, I was very bright, had trouble connecting with my peers and all that sort of thing. And this made me a target for bullies of course. Which in turn– because of how I saw conflict resolution played out in my home, I developed anger problems like really bad. I would I would get very upset when these kids would make fun of me in their various ways. And I would lash out of them but I was a scrawny little nerdy kid, so I didn’t do much before I got in trouble. And because I lashed out, I usually got in trouble way worse than the kids who were picking on me.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

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Myra describes how she was bullied and her parents did not respond to her calls for help. Later she dabbled in cutting and had suicidal thoughts.

Then I got to Kindergarten and unfortunately I had a classmate who thought that it would be fun to repeatedly sexually assault me (sigh). Yeah, I had tried telling my parents once and they didn’t believe me. They were like, oh, this person isn’t messing with you, they figured I didn’t know what I was talking about because I was so young, but I was, you, you know, I had, I had that intellect and I was like this isn’t right, I need to tell someone. So I tried telling them and they basically said that I needed to tell the person to leave me alone and I’d been doing that but she, unfortunately, would not stop and that went on for an entire year and, I seemed to adjust to school otherwise pretty well because all of this depression stuff didn’t come up again for about ten years afterwards.

I went through most of middle school being, being picked on for speaking in, you know for speaking with such intellect. Again, the stigma in the black community is you’re supposed to, you’re supposed to use simple words, you’re supposed to just accept where you are, and usually that’s in a bad neighborhood, or a ghetto so to say. I, and I’d been raised to want better for myself. I’d been reading by the time I was 3 and I loved learning and education so I got poked at fun, I got poked fun at a lot for that. It started out as, oh you’re such an oreo, you, you wanna be white girl, don’t you know you’re black, and kids just went on from there and went from that to, oh she must be gay…

Then I got to my sophomore year of high school and out, out of nowhere it was just like you know what, I don’t care anymore, I stopped doing my homework, I started letting things slide, I, I kind of tried to chase after a few boys and it didn’t work out…

Suicide was crossing my mind and I was dabbling with cutting myself so I should have spoken out about that but, once again the stigma, the stigma it just I, the one time that I tried to talk to my parents I remember telling my mom when I was like 12, I was like, you know I’m kinda feeling suicidal, I’m kinda feeling like there’s no point in me being here and I remember she just gave me a big hug and was like, you’re not suicidal, you’re, no, yeah that’s not happening, so, but that’s kind of why I stopped just saying anything.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 27

Background: Myra is a musician works as an aide to older adults. She lives with her fiancé. She is African American.

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(See ‘Depression and having a purpose in life’ and ‘Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ to learn how Myra is moving on with her life.)

Partner violence

Some women said that depression and low self-esteem made them vulnerable to choosing and staying with abusive intimate partners.

Violet says her depression kept her in an abusive relationship until her daughter got worried and she decided not to 'let her think that this is what her life should be when she grows up.'
Interview Transcript

My partner emotionally, mentally abused me and I would feel low and I just stayed because I felt so low, I felt I couldn’t possibly do this you know on my own I couldn’t have my daughter on my own. It wasn’t until, it wasn’t until my daughter started witnessing and commenting on things, you know “why are you crying, why does daddy say those things to you, why aren’t you happy?” that I said “alright this is enough.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

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(To learn how else Violet has been breaking the pattern of abuse, see ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ and ‘Strategies for everyday life’.)

Some women got involved with partners who took their property and left them with debt, depression and heartache when they left. When Whitney’s boyfriend left, “He actually took the recovery drive to my computer, which actually sent me to even more of a depression. My daughter locked me out of my administrative account and you need that recovery drive in order to get your password and get back in. And I got kicked out of school.”

Tia says that after an intimate partner stole her belongings, she went back in her shell. She wonders why she was such an easy target to be preyed upon.

So it ended really badly, abuse. He’s taken things from my actual apartment when was, when I actually had the strength to get up and go look for a job after being depressed. And I went to a temp service which I didn’t want to do because then I would be around people, lots of people, but I had no choice and while I was at the interview he came and kind of took everything that you know that I worked for and that I had so, you know, so you know after that situation I was depressed, but looking at him maybe it’s different. But I kinda felt that I wasn’t as bad, but then also felt horrible because it was, it’s something in me that attracted this person, there’s something in me that allowed the relationship to go on so long. There’s something that I need to change. So it was an eye opener, but then again I’m back in my shell, because it’s just scary.

Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Tia works as a patient advocate. She is single and lives alone in an apartment. She is African American.

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Sexual abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD)

Rape (including childhood sexual abuse) is the most common, non-combat trigger for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 65% of men and 46% of women who are raped develop PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include recurring flashbacks and avoidance.*1,*2

A few people we interviewed mentioned having been sexually abused, or raped. These traumatic experiences, amplified depression and resulted in them having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sierra Rose has severe depression, severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD. Here she describes the lasting effects of a long-ago rape.
Interview Transcript

I had snuck out of class I had gone with a guy to his house to smoke pot and it wasn’t even his house we went to it was, we went to one of his friends house’s, there were people passed out all over the place it was, I mean it was your normal party house and I ended up smoking and drinking and they followed me into the bathroom and all three of them had their way with me. I never told anybody I cleaned myself up and went back to school. I currently suffer PTSD from that I get flashback nightmares and they, the dreams are so real that I can’t have my boyfriend touch me. Which hurts a lot to love somebody, to live with somebody, and not be able to sleep in the same bed with them.

Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

To learn how Sierra Rose is coping with her experience of abuse see ‘Depression and healing’.)

Maya has depression and PTSD. She describes how early life sexual abuse plays out in her pattern of attracting dangerous, predatory, and abusive people.

I have complex PTSD because I also endured a great amount of, not a great amount, but I also dealt with sexual abuse when I was younger and I have been in numerous sexually abusive situations since that time. And so I want to say that my abuse started when I was probably about 7 and continued on and off until I was like 9 or maybe 10 …

This sexual abuse took place between children and they were my god brothers who were also altar boys, so I was more or less molested by the Catholic Church. And then you proceed to be in this environment where there is just profound shame about, you know, being a woman and then that purity is your highest virtue and the virgin Mary and the virgin whore dynamic and all of that. And I think that’s a lot of what prompted me to becoming a feminist and also becoming very educated about sort of gender roles and sexual health issues in general…

I learned very negative patterns of relating with people that have attracted very dangerous people in my life and I, there’s an incredible book called The Gift of Fear by, I don’t remember who it’s by, but it’s called The Gift of Fear that pointed out a lot of things. One of the things was sort of like, the victim interview, like how people sort of screen for people who have no emotional boundaries and who can be manipulated and I was just like, “Oh, that totally happened to me before that incidence of abuse.” And I was just like, “Oh yeah, that’s, that’s totally what happened.” Because at one point, I was abused by a stranger and that’s when I, and this was in my adult life and I was just like, “Oh yeah, I have a giant ‘you should abuse me sign’ on my forehead. I should probably deal with that. I should probably address whatever issues are there that do not allow me to keep myself safe and to avoid people and their predatory.” Because I just ignore my gut feeling that I am uncomfortable or ignore my feeling that someone is doing something wrong, because that’s literally every moment of being with my family, is having your boundaries and your emotions just trampled over and then being told that ‘it’s your fault that you’re upset.’

Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

Click here to view Maya's profile page

(See ‘Depression and healing’ and ‘Holistic and integrative approaches to depression’ to learn how Maya is moving on with her life.)

See also ‘How depression feels’, ‘Depression and identity’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘Having a purpose in life’, and ‘Therapy and counseling’.


*1 Teicher, Martin H., et al. “Length of Time between Onset of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Emergence of Depression in a Young Adult Sample.” The Journal of clinical psychiatry 70.5 (2009): 684.

*2 “Facts and Statistics”. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. September 2014. Web. 7 February 2016.
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