Dilemmas: Can I help my depressed friend?

Peter's friend Philip, a highly intelligent man, suffers bad bouts of depression. He's often been hospitalised, but has refused ECT. He's coped well for six years with help and now he's applying for jobs. Although he often gets short-listed, he is invariably

turned down when potential employers hear about his illness. Peter feels that this smacks of prejudice. Can he help?


It's ghastly being depressed. It's ghastly being around someone who's depressed. Because what we all want, when a friend or relation of ours is ill, is to do something. Now, if they have cancer or a broken leg, it's relatively simple. We know that in the "doing" stakes, we're impotent. There's no way we can pop round with a chemotherapy casserole or a bag of plaster. "Would you like a splint?" isn't part of the patient's friend's vocabulary. Nor is: "Do let me nip round with some radiotherapy."

No, we should, we feel wrongly, be able to cure our depressed friends ourselves, simply by offering hope or love, neither of which is on prescription. We should be able to make life worth living for them, by telling them jokes, by encouraging them to go for walks and get some fresh air, or simply by being there. When someone close to us is very, very depressed (and I'm talking here of true depression, not everyday gloom) the fact that they can't be cheered up by us often seems like a criticism of our own powers.

So when you say to someone who's depressed: "Hey, it's a lovely day, the sun's shining, so why don't we go for a walk and then go to the movies and then go out for a scrumptious supper?" and they say they really don't want to, we feel terribly rejected. To make them feel better is almost a selfish act. If we don't succeed, we feel worse about ourselves, and before we know where we are, we're blaming them at some level about making us feel bad about ourselves, and then getting angry with them. That's when the awful phrase "Pull yourself together!" comes into play.

Now, if Philip is depressed, Peter shouldn't feel guilty. When you're depressed, you could win the pools and have Gwyneth Paltrow stalking you, and all you'd say would be: "So what?"

What is so terrible about suffering from depression is the very inability to accept any kind of help. This is one of the symptoms. If depression could be alleviated by declarations of love, or offers of sunlit walks or holidays or dinners, then no one would ever suffer from the condition. The dreadful thing about depression is that it puts up a barrier to accepting anything from outside. For the depressed person, everything is coloured from the inside.

Peter can do no more than he's doing. Perhaps he could suggest that Philip shouldn't set his mind against ECT, which can have an absolutely magical effect on some people who are recommended it. And perhaps he could sympathise with him about his job problems, while at the same time pointing out that no employer wants to take on anyone who's going to be off work for long periods, whether they suffer from depression, migraines, broken limbs or whatever.

I suffer from bouts of severe depression. And yet I would never employ anyone who had a history of taking time off to be in hospital. I would also not want to employ a depressive, simply because on the whole I find depressives incredibly gloomy people to be around. It would be rather like employing someone with a permanent cold. I'd always worry that I was going to catch it and spiral down again.

Peter's friend suffers from a crippling and disabling illness. Funnily enough, the less Peter tries to "do" something about it, and the more accepting he can be of Philip's condition, the freer Philip will feel to confide in his friend and to feel safe around him.

And the safer he can feel, with no pressure to feel "better", paradoxically, the better he may become.


Turn the illness into a plus

In our bigoted society, Philip on the face of it would have little chance in gaining suitable employment - employers are not under any obligations to employ candidates with a history of mental health problems.

My advice (as a mental nurse) would be for him to target jobs where his mental health history would be an advantage, eg mental health charities or mental health trusts looking for advocacy workers, and progress from there.



Why not try voluntary work?

I feel so sorry for Philip, but why does everyone want to work for a salary? I take it he's been able to cope without money so far?

For instance, if he went to Social Services he'd be asked to do Meals on Wheels or something similar and see sights that would pull him up to take a second look at his life.

I'm afraid Philip is not looking at himself from an employer's point of view. I've been on boards where a member of staff has come up with a psychological illness and, quite rightly, backed by their union has got a small fortune out of their employer. Employers these days cannot afford to take such a risk.


London SW19

Philip needs your support

Depression is surprisingly common, affecting 12 per cent of the adult population. Therapy, though good, can never be seen as a cure, and unfortunately it is this fact that many employees will dwell on.

When you are close to a sufferer, it can be infuriating to watch their self-esteem be destroyed as once again their vicious circle of self-hatred begins.

Regardless of his employment status, a sufferer from depression needs your support and absolute faith in him. It may sometimes seem as if your words are falling on deaf ears, but they will be appreciated and help enormously.

LAURA, Oxford

Start your own business

Philip should take up a venture of his own. You could perhaps help him to establish it. He could help people with tax, entrance and final exams, CVs etc. There is plenty of room for somebody who can give intelligent help for a fee.


Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am an extremely experienced woman, working for a new firm on a contractual basis in a senior position, but I work at home as well as on site. The company have told me that they'll provide me with a bleeper so they can contact me whenever they like. I was expected to be delighted about this "perk". But in fact I value my privacy, and feel phobic about being able to be reached at all times, when I'm walking in the hills or when I'm in my bath. I'm frightened of it ringing when I'm driving, I find it bad- mannered to have phones going off when I'm talking to someone, and if I put it on "vibrate". I'd have to wear it Sellotaped to my skin as, unlike men who have the waistbands of trousers, or pockets, I often have nowhere it could be attached to my clothes. The same argument would apply to a mobile phone. I know lots of people hate mobiles going off all the time, but does anyone share my phobia about actually owing a bleeper or mobile? How do they cope?

Yours sincerely, Valerie

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, "The Independent", 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail dilemmas@independent.co.uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet.

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