Haunted House: The Effects of Returning to Childhood Homes on our Mental Health

Artwork by Leo Ioverio

Have you ever considered your childhood home to be haunted? Often considered dark, dusty, dank homes inhabited by vengeful spirits, a haunted house isn’t common in real life and is most commonly found in horror films you watch at a teen sleepover. But with many of us plagued by the mental anguish our childhood homes inflicted, it may seem that the real haunted houses are the ones we grew up in.

If you’d been bullied during school you probably wouldn’t return once you no longer need to, but that choice is eliminated when the place of trauma is considered home. Whether your return is temporary for the holiday season, moving back after university or due to COVID-19; many feel like they’re regressing to a more turbulent time, faced with frustrations and problems previously tackled instead of the warm nostalgia that’s often expected. It’s common to move back in with your parents once finishing university - even more common in 2020 due to lockdown - but that doesn’t mean that it won’t feel like a huge step backward for some. Jennifer Caputo (Society and Mental Health – journal) found young adults who lived independently were less depressed as “economic and social independence are hallmarks of a successful transition to adulthood”. By not doing so, young adults may experience feelings of failure and resentment. Caputo claims that the return to the parental home is a significant predictor of depression in young adults, more so than relationship and work-related losses.

During 2020 when coronavirus was at its height, many students returned to their guardians’ homes to continue their studies online. The mental health charity ‘Mind’ found that 73% of students said that their mental health declined during lockdown. Atalanta - a 20-year-old Graphic Design student - expressed how returning to her childhood home during the first lockdown was “mentally confusing as it felt like I was back in the same place as I was 1 or 2 years ago, like I hadn’t moved or changed and all my growth and independence was taken away from me so suddenly”. Atalanta felt that attending university meant she’d learnt more about herself, but going back home “was like I was being stuffed back into my shell that was no longer big enough for me, it felt cramped and I didn’t have the space to be me anymore”.

Childhood homes are filled with memories, an environment synonymous with the best and worst of times of your life. It’s often the worst of these times that can still sting like a fresh wound when witnessing where they took place. What you felt in the past can bubble up to the surface and trigger feelings of anxiety. This is particularly prominent during the holidays and occasions where people are expected to push aside their feelings to create happy experiences, but a ‘magical’ celebration isn’t realistic when families or homes possess underlying issues. It’s not unusual for people to regress psychologically when faced with a tense situation around their family. Many find that they revert to old patterns and behaviours without recognising what has changed over time. This can lead to people feeling diminished, tense or hurt by family. These emotions are sparked by interactions that often have the ability to automatically send us back in time to the vulnerable inexperienced child we once were.

In my personal experience my returns home for the holidays or over the first lockdown were very divisive for me. On one hand I love my parents and I was quite literally born in their house; it's full of so many great meaningful memories. On the other hand, it’s the place where I saw my sister wither away with anorexia, where I developed body dysmorphic disorder, where I didn’t leave for months due to crippling anxiety and depression, where I told my mum I’d been sexually assaulted, where I experienced heartbreak for the first time, where I facetimed my unconscious Dad daily who was in a coma with Coronavirus. When I step foot in my childhood home, emotions don’t crash down upon me like a tidal wave but instead that old melancholy feeling creeps back into my body during the still quiet moments, like when I lay awake in my bed or stand in the shower that I’ve previously used to hide the sound of my tears. It’s like I’m running freely and all of a sudden there’s a tight leash around my neck stopping me from moving forwards. There’s a feeling of guilt for me that I’m admitting to the fact my mental health suffers when I return home because somehow I still have a loving attachment to the place, but after a week or two I can’t stay because if I do I’ll be overwhelmed by the ghosts of my past and regress back to the girl who lived in a constant state of fear. How do we move on when we keep having to come back to the scene of all our crimes?

Unlike the uber rich celebrities seen on Instagram who are constantly ‘getting away’ for their mental health and can afford to live alone in swanky apartments, many of us have very little ways of escaping our environment so the best we can do is learn the healthiest ways of coping with it. One popular idea is to start acknowledging what you have positive associations with in the environment - such as a keepsake or photograph - that can boost your mood and rebuild a sense of connection. If you’re staying in your childhood home for a longer period of time you can think about changes that you can have complete control over - like re-organising your personal space or the space in which you frequent the most. A lot of our memories and associations with events are exposed through sensory identification; so why not bring in fresh new scents or redecorate what you’re able to. Practice mindful exercises such as conscious awareness, where you take the time to mentally identify what is happening and how it’s making you feel, or breathing exercises to help reduce anxiety and help to ground you in overwhelming situations.

It’s important to consider the mental health of young adults, especially when they return to their childhood homes. Most universities offer a short chunk of counselling sessions for students, but after completing those or leaving university there’s a lack of easily available assistance for struggling graduates. Often the process of finding help can be overwhelming and this can lead to people giving up on the process, it doesn’t help that students and graduates aren’t in the position to be finding help privately when the NHS talking therapies waiting time is around six months to a year. The return to the childhood home isn’t filled with sinister spirits and ghastly ghouls but it often haunts us as a reminder of everything we haven’t achieved and everything that we’ve been through. However, as much as one may struggle, embracing changes and setting personal boundaries can become the escape to the new mindset we all crave in non-negotiable home situations.

Article by Phoebe Cotterell