The Friendship Doctor

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Dealing with a Depressed Friend When You're Depressed

A depressed friend is weighing her down but she feels guilty about stepping back

QUESTION

Hi,

I need some advice on a very tricky situation. My friend, whom I met online and have known for a couple of years, has been depressed and suicidal for the past year. I also have had chronic depression from since I was young and have also been suicidal so I thought I could relate to her feelings of being a failure and thinking that life is going nowhere.

The problem is she doesn't actively seek help on her own and doesn't like seeing a psychiatrist. She often tells me about her suicidal feelings and gets mad at me and her other friends for supposedly ignoring her and making her feel miserable because we don't pay enough attention to her.

It has come to the point that I feel like our relationship is toxic. Every time I speak to her she gets mad. And when I don't talk to her every week like she expects me to, she gets upset, too. It really feels like no matter what I do it's never enough. She is negative in every aspect of conversation and any time I try to bring up something optimistic it gets knocked down or I get some sort of smart remark in return.

It's also frustrating when my friend guilt trips me into paying more attention to her or tries to make me feel bad for not doing enough for her.  I'll even get something like the suicide card sometimes and it makes me feel trapped.

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I've spoken to her mom about this and have even invited her to my home even though we were only online friends. I make sure to contact her every once in awhile to see how she's doing but if the timeframe gets too long, she accuses me of avoiding her. It's come to the point where I feel like I'm being taken advantage of or played with even though she may not mean it.

As I mentioned before I also have my own depression to deal with, I've been seeing a psychiatrist for years and it's really hard for me to even get my own life together let alone take on what my friend is dealing with. The thing is though I'm afraid if I distance myself or set a boundary she'll attempt to commit suicide in which case I wouldn't be able to handle the guilt of maybe not helping enough or not caring enough. How can I distance myself enough to still be her friend but also allow myself the space and breathing room to focus on my own life?

Signed, Rosa

ANSWER

Hi Rosa,

While you and your friend share a history of depression, that shared experience alone is not enough to cement a healthy friendship.

As you well know, it is extraordinarily difficult to be close friends with someone who is severely depressed. If your friend always sees things in a negative light and has no hope for the future, being with her can begin to feel like a real downer. Given that you are prone to depression yourself, you are correct in trying to gain some distance from this relationship.

Ruminating about depression isn’t good for either of you. Your friend also sounds manipulative and may have other psychiatric diagnoses. You need to be honest and tell your friend you’ve realized this relationship isn’t good for your own mental health, and that until she seeks treatment, you need to step back. When you speak, focus your conversation on your needs, not hers.

If you feel you want to maintain this relationship, you need to set firm boundaries that feel comfortable for you. For example, you can tell your friend you can only communicate online once or twice a month. Alternatively I can also understand you deciding to break off the friendship or place it on a back burner for now.

Sadly, you are correct in being concerned about your friend. A person who talks about suicide is at increased risk. This is something that your friend may do whether or not you remain friends. You have done the right thing in alerting her family and urging her to seek treatment but you can’t take on the responsibility of making yourself her virtual life preserver.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog that discuss friendship and depression:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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