I have a friend who I have known since we were 2; we are now in our late 20s. In the last decade my friend has suffered from severe depression and I really want to know how to help them. This friend is a medical professional and has more understanding than the average person about depression. They have a steady (though stressful) job, have no financial worries and are in a long term relationship. They have friends also. However, they are completely unable to recognize these things and feel isolated, alone and worthless. My personal problem is that I live on a different continent to them and so I can only ever help them remotely. They are seeing their doctor, getting therapy and taking medication but I am not sure how much it is doing for them. This person is chronically bad at keeping in touch with people and seems incapable of replying to anything with more than a couple of brief sentences- sometimes only one word. With anyone else, you would think they were giving you the brush off, that they are just not interested in your opinion but this person has come over to visit me (I emigrated to the Midwest- it is lovely but not a high tourist destination) and so I really believe that they want to keep the connection. I also want to keep the connection because I view them as my sibling: I do not want to give up on them. It is trying though because they aren’t really able to give anything back (at least in writing- in person they have always been good at talking- I have suggested skype). My heart breaks for them- how can I help them and selfishly, also myself? I realize I am not best placed to help but if there is anything I can do or suggest that they do, I would be eternally grateful for the advice.
Dear EP –
I wish there was an easy answer to this. There isn’t. The fact that your friend has access to mental health care and is going to therapy, taking meds and talking to a doctor, puts them in a rare category indeed. Very lucky. Being so far away makes your opportunity to be helpful very difficult and that has to be frustrating. You may be surprised by this, but you might be just as frustrated by this situation if you lived next door to your friend. Everyone handles depression differently, but most don’t reach out for help from friends and family very easily.
I think you are on the right track. Attempting to connect and checking in and expressing love are all great things. I would, however, caution you about something you may do unintentionally to make things worse for your relationship. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in positions of “I’m the only one that can help” when we care very much for someone. Depression is a complex and difficult mental illness to treat when you are a professional. It’s a very difficult illness to help a friend or loved one with when they are living in your very own house – but across the globe might be impossible. Ask yourself this question, “if I stopped worrying about helping them with their depression, then what would I be doing differently in my attempts to keep contact and engage with them?” Would you Skype for fun? Maybe plan a trip there or to meet somewhere in the middle? Often in life, we have concerns that far exceed our influence to make a significant difference. Don’t underestimate the small difference you can make with genuine friendship and invitations to connect and enjoy life together. Can you increase your influence by increasing your connection and interest in them (outside depression)? Can you be as patient with them as depression often demands? Can you make sure you are taking care of your own face-to-face relationships in your daily life? (This last one is more important than you’d think.)
I recognize that depression often robs people of their ability to connect and sustain relationships, but as the friend of a sufferer, you cannot fix that for them. However, you can make sure you are taking care of yourself, attempting to connect and strengthen them, and now and again, checking in with yourself about your motives and efforts, to ensure that you are not neglecting your other relationships or your own well-being. As you move from a solid place in your own life, your influence on your friend, for good, can increase.
I wish you, and your friend, all the good vibes I can muster. Thank heavens for good friends in this world.
Best of luck.