Reader dilemma: 'My friend is depressed, and I found a suicide note she'd written'

"Tell her that when she says there’s no hope, she should remember that it’s her depression speaking and not her. And get her to see a doctor"

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Dear Virginia,

I am very concerned about my best friend. She has been depressed for quite some time. There are moments she comes out of it, but when she’s down, she’s convinced that nothing can help her. I’ve suggested all kinds of things – hypnosis, pills, therapy, exercise – but she refuses even to give them a try. She won’t even visit the doctor or tell her parents. I’m fairly sure she has considered suicide – I came across a suicide note that she wrote – but she won’t talk about it. Is there any way that I can help her?

Yours sincerely,  Phoebe

Virginia says

I’ve experienced both sides of depression, and first, let’s run through what you mustn’t do. Don’t try to cheer her up. Don’t tell her jokes. Don’t suggest that she “be kind to herself”. Don’t say she needs a holiday. Don’t say: “It’s fine to cry.” These remarks will only confirm to her that nobody understands her, and will, to be honest, push her even further into the mire than she already is.

So what should you do? Firstly, tell her that when she says there’s no hope, she should remember that it’s her depression speaking and not her. This is a concept that’s extremely important for both of you to understand. There are three people in this relationship – you, her and the depression – and the depression is something you must tackle together. If, out of her mouth, you hear the depression speaking (and every time she says there’s no hope, it’s the depression that is talking), you can behave as you like. You can treat it as a very unhappy child, or you can be as manipulative and untruthful as you like. Depression has no moral sense.  

Secondly, get her to a doctor. Of course she’ll refuse, but here you must use all your cunning. Tell you couldn’t care less if she wants to go or not, she’s got to go for your sake. Tell that you’re going mad with worry, and that if anything were to happen to her you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you thought she hadn’t seen a doctor. Offer to come with her yourself. Get angry if, after that, she still refuses to go. It’s the depression that you’re getting angry with, not her.

Ask her why she doesn’t kill herself. This isn’t as callous as it sounds. Simply ask her the reasons that prevent her – and force her to make a list of some positives in her life. Or, if not positives, positive negatives, such as not wanting to upset people around her or not knowing how to kill herself successfully. When someone asked me that when I was suicidal, I found it a real turning point.

Try caring for her, and putting your arm round her and doing things for her, but at the same time don’t overdo it. Depression is often a result of what’s known as “learned helplessness”. As a child, she probably learned that nothing she does makes any difference to the way she’s treated, so she feels utterly powerless. So give her a bit of power. Ask for help yourself over something minor. Make her feel wanted and useful. Say that, however depressed she is, it always makes you feel better when you see her. Tell her that she’s needed. Give her life some meaning.

Fewer people kill themselves in wartime when they’re all pulling together and they have a common cause. Help her to feel that she is, in her own way, valuable – by making her valuable.

Readers say...

Just be with her

My suggestion is that you simply remain a good friend to your friend. This means that you offer generous and non-judgmental support on a regular basis, over, say, a cup of tea or a meal. You can do this by active listening and, when appropriate, asking open questions that can help her clarify things for herself and give you a clearer idea of how she feels. She needs to be allowed to choose what other help she wants or needs. If she does successfully commit suicide then this is a decision she has made for herself and there is nothing that either you or anyone else could have done to stop her. Just hang on in there alongside her. None of us ever really knows how powerful such a quiet presence can be in someone else’s life. This is, for you, about being rather than doing.

Elisabeth Storrs

York

Samaritans can help

As this letter and responses could bring out difficult thoughts and feelings in a range of readers, for all kinds of different reasons, we feel that it’s important to signpost sources of support. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. We provide a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. Please call 08457 90 90 90 (UK) 116 123 (ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.

Anyone can talk to Samaritans about whatever’s getting to them – you don’t have to be suicidal.

Jane Bolger

Samaritans

Get her to a doctor

Your friend is most likely in no fit state to make many decisions right now. The most important thing is to address her suicidal ideas and, by the looks of it, some kind of plan, which makes it even more serious. Did she leave the note for you to find? If so, it may be a good sign that she is “shouting” for help, but is perhaps too scared, embarrassed or insecure to admit it. She does not want to talk about it, but might do so with professional help, which is often easier and unbiased.

Talk she must. The initial and easiest way is via her GP, who can then direct her to the correct and appropriate team of people.

Offer to take her, and just be there at the appointment (if you can) for support. There is not much more that you can do, but gently explain that you are taking it seriously and cannot stand back and watch her slide into serious depression without doing something.

Louis Nel

by email

Next week's dilemma

Fifteen years ago, I divorced my wife, leaving her for another woman, who I will be marrying this autumn. My wife blames my new partner entirely, and although she coped with her being present at my daughter’s wedding, she has insisted that my son – who is getting married next month – doesn’t ask her to his wedding. My son says it will just cause too much tension. My children get on fine with my partner. My son will be very upset if I don’t attend, and I’ll be very upset if I’m forced to attend without my partner. How do we resolve this?

Yours sincerely,

Rodney

What would you advise Rodney to do? To answer this dilemma, or to share your own problem, write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk

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