Stewie and Brian show us how to talk to a depressed friend

“Family Guy” takes on suicide prevention

Posted May 05, 2010

Lemme tell you, I never thought I'd be writing about "Family Guy," the FOX television show that probably offends more people than it attracts. Even when I started typing, I thought, "No, I can't do this."

But, as I thought about it a bit more, I realized, well, a lot of people ask how they can help a friend who is depressed, perhaps suicidal.

And, oddly, a baby and a dog showed us how to do so this past Sunday. On FOX. Yep.

They also showed us what not to do, so I'm going to explain both, helped by the comedic stylings of Seth MacFarlane and his animated creations, Stewie, a baby who never ages but is most certainly grown up, and Brian, a dog with a human personality, and, um, who talks.

In the episode that aired Sunday, Brian and Stewie find themselves locked in bank vault as they're trying to retrieve items from Brian's safe deposit box. Stewie discovers that Brian has a gun in the safe deposit box, which ultimately leads him to ask, "Hey Bri? How come you have a gun?"

Stewie goes on: "You're the last person anybody would expect to have a gun."

Brian: "Well, that's why I keep it here, where it's safe."

Stewie: "That doesn't make any sense. Why have it if you're not going to use it?"

Stewie pushes Brian to explain why he has the gun, saying plaintively: "Please tell me why you have it."

Finally, Brian says, "I keep case...I ever want to commit suicide, okay?"

Stewie quickly realizes that Brian is serious and asks why. Brian says that Stewie wouldn't understand, and Stewie, quite sensitively says, as he moves closer to Brian, "I could try."

Brian opens up to Stewie, and Stewie questions Brian's choice of a gun (this one falls in the what-not-to-do category, which I'll say more about later). Stewie goes on to say, "I don't quite understand why you're so unhappy."

After explaining how he's feeling, Brian says with a sigh, "You're the only person I've ever told this to." He's stunned by Stewie's lack of response and asks, "Aren't you going to say anything?" Stewie says, "I don't know what to say. Wanting to kill yourself - I think that's pretty selfish of you."

It's clear that what Stewie feels for Brian, which is told over the rest of the episode, is a sort of brotherly, best-friends love, and he expresses how much he cares for Brian in a number of endearing ways. He's angry that Brian thinks about killing himself, because if Brian is gone, Stewie will lose the person who makes his life enjoyable.

What does Stewie do that helps Brian?

  • Asks open-ended questions and tries to respond in a non-judgmental way. (He asks, "How come you have a gun?" which comes out sounding very different from something along the lines of, "I thought you'd never have a gun." Even though Stewie goes on to put a bit of a political spin on Brian's possession of the gun, the first question is a good opener.)
  • Tells his friend how much he cares about him and how important his friend is to his life. (Brian expresses how meaningless and purposeless his life has become; Stewie shows Brian how much meaning Brian brings to Stewie's life.)

What does Stewie do that's less than helpful?

  • Be critical. (Saying something like "I don't like when you talk like this" shuts down the conversation. Saying that suicide is selfish is also not helpful. Suicide is considered by people who are in psychological pain, not by people who are thinking only of themselves.)
  • Give other options for dying by suicide. (Stewie feels that a gun is too messy and makes some other suggestions he thinks will be less so. It's not safe to suggest that someone might consider another option when that person is expressing suicidality.)

What do I wish Stewie had done?

  • Gotten Brian to talk to someone who could help him with his depression on an ongoing basis. (It's an incredible burden for a friend to be the only person who knows that someone is suicidal. Suggesting that a friend talk to a mental health professional is an appropriate response.)
  • Taken away the gun. (Restricting access to a highly lethal means of suicide is essential to helping a friend who is suicidal.)

A show like "Family Guy" does, much to my chagrin, have a captive audience. So, when pop culture takes on suicide prevention, I pay attention. It's good to know it's possible to learn something about how to help a friend while enjoying a weekly dose of gross-out humor.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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