Sunday, 23 February 2014

On helping a friend with depression.

I know guys I have promised a post with photos of Sri Lanka. It's a big 'un and it's in progress.

Right now I have something more pressing I want to write about.

Everyone has been talking about Charlotte Dawson lately.

It's always a terrible tragedy when somebody young, beautiful and with the world at their feet takes their own life.

I confess to not knowing much about Charlotte, I don't watch the model shows or follow celeb gossip much. I was aware that she battled depression. Battle seems like a cliche but it is an apt descriptor for depression. It is chronic and debilitating. It is something her and I have  in common.

The common narrative is "she was so loved" "she was so beautiful".
"I wish I had have asked her whether she was ok".

Severe depression, no doubt like what Charlotte suffered, puts you in a place which is not amenable to declarations of love, or compliments. You don't believe them, and you certainly do not feel worthy of love or compliments.

I suspect that, if anyone other than her very closest confidant/ therapist had asked her was she ok, she would have smiled dazzlingly and said "I am fine".

Indeed, Charlotte reportedly looked fresh, glowing and energetic at recent engagements. Successful people who suffer with depression are adept at maintaining this facade.

Giving people compliments and reaching out by saying "RUOK" are great, and absolutely appropriate. It is great that people are thinking in these terms.

So, for argument's sake, you have a friend who you strongly suspected was struggling. What would you do if they said they were fine and you really didn't believe them? Alternatively, how would you react if they said they had serious thoughts of harming themselves?

It's quite a confronting thing to bring up, but bear with me.

A number of times, I have teetered a little too close to the proverbial cliff. Or I have wanted the earth to swallow me up. Mostly I kept this quiet, and many of those closest to me either did not know or did not know how to deal with it. It was good that I was mindful of these teeterings, and took myself off to the doctor when I had them.

Once, I was feeling this way, a friend who had also suffered with depression said to me "are you safe?" I didn't answer. He took the day off work and sat with me.

If you have a loved one who you know is struggling, I would suggest a proactive approach. In the place they are in, they will not likely take you up on offers, but they will be grateful for small interventions. They will get them through till the medication kicks in.

Call around. Sit with them. Make them take a shower and put out some clothes for them to wear. Bring around some food. Put your mobile phone number by their mobile phone, with strict instructions to call at any time if they feel on the edge.

Feelings of being on the edge often occur at the most inconvenient times of the day.

Being near somebody with severe depression (or any severe illness) is hard. They know that, and will try and hide themselves from you. But, like most other illnesses, with correct treatment, it gets better. Support will be remembered.

I am sure Charlotte had many people to tell her how wonderful she was, and ask her if she was ok. It was probably only a very inner circle that did the hard yards with her. My thoughts are with those people.

Above all, if you are in the situation where a friend is seriously depressed or suicidal, ask for help. Call the local CATT team. Call Lifeline (131114). March them to their doctor. Don't try and deal with it alone. Some things are bigger than the support you can provide.

This is an emotive topic, and I may get some differing views, which I would be happy to hear, but keep them respectful. Everyone comes from a different place. If it stirs up anything for you, please, go and see your doctor or therapist.


  1. Thanks for writing this, C! One of the most constructive pieces I have written in the wake of Charlotte's tragic death.

    SSG xxx

  2. I love this post and thank you for your excellent trained professional advice and for sharing your personal experience. I feel very sad about her death, despite never knowing her. Take care my friend xxxx

    1. Thanks FF xx
      I speak entirely from a personal (not professional) perspective.
      Both ways, I always say get help!
      Such a common and debilitating problem, and not well understood.

  3. I didn't "know" her properly either as she isn't famous over here but yes mental health is still in its early stages no? I have two close friends - one is bipolar and one is a bipolar manic depressive - I don't speak to the latter anymore bc he refuses to have anything to do with me. He wouldn't take his pills everytime he felt better and then would go off them only to spiral again - I would be insistent and check on him etc but in the end ( after more than a decade) he hated me reminding him even though I was the one who had to bail him out emotionally and financially. So in my experience as well intentioned as asking questions and being there is - there is a limit to what one can do and it is excruciatingly hard to sit by and watch someone self destruct. There is a tough delicate balance to be at the sidelines.
    When my friends go through a spell - they isolate themselves and it is very hard to get through to them in any fashion. If someone wants to pull away then there is a sense of helplessness from those around the person which is almost as bad because you are so powerless and yet due to illness they tend to make bad decisions leaving them in a weak financial state preventing them to get proper professional help.
    But I feel terrible that someone feels so bad that they feel death is a relief.
    I hope the medical field make strides and do more research and the government stop cutting back on mental health issues. But I am glad you wrote from your own experience and shared this xx

    1. I am glad you gave a different take on this.
      I have always had reasonable insight into my condition, but the very nature of some mental illnesses means that the sufferer lacks insight into their situation. They may well refuse help, and treatment can be more complicated. I am proud that you stuck it out with those friends as long as they let you. That must've been hard, and sad.

  4. I'm not a big fan of things like RUOK day because I don't see how it helps someone with depression to be taken up as the cause du jour. Of course, if you ask if someone is okay, they'll say yes most times. And, if you try to get under the surface and develop a trust relationship then bail when the going gets tough, I think you can do more harm than good.