Guideposts Classics: Brooke Shields' 4 Tips for Helping a Friend Cope with Depression

In this story from August 2005, the actress, who lost a dear friend to suicide, shares the lessons she learned from that experience—and from her own struggle with depression.

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- Posted on May 30, 2018

Actress Brooks Shields

David Strickland was like a brother to me. For three seasons we worked together on the TV show Suddenly Susan. My friends tend to be people who are not in the entertainment business. David was different. He was a brilliant but vulnerable actor and an incredibly loyal friend.

Then in 1999 the unthinkable: David committed suicide. I was aware that he was suffering from depression. We’d talked about it. It was as if the emotional vulnerability that made him a great actor destroyed him as a person. I knew he’d been taking medication. We talked about it often. But I always wondered if I could have done more. I kept thinking of things that might have made a difference. But it was only when I faced my own depression a few years later that I truly understood how desperate David must have been, and how hard it is to reach out for help.

Throughout my depression I had the constant support of my husband, Chris Henchy, my family and my friends. There were times I must have seemed impossible to reach. And yet they kept trying and they eventually did reach me.

Here are four crucial things I’ve learned that you must do to help a friend in trouble:

1. Be There

Listening is one of the most powerful things you can do to help someone who is suffering. You don’t have to have any answers. A depressed person is trying to fight her way out of a terrible wilderness, and just to be listened to helps her in her quest for a path.

When I came home with my newborn baby, Rowan, I thought what I was experiencing was simple exhaustion. Yet there was an overriding sense of panic that I had never felt before. I wasn’t cut out to be a mother, I thought. In the past, if I felt down, I could counteract it with exercise, a good night’s sleep or a nice dinner with a friend. But I became convinced that this terrible feeling would never go away.

I called friends and family and cried to them on the phone. I called my stepsister Diana. “Promise me it will get better,” I wailed. She begged me to get a baby nurse for a few days so I could sleep. The people in my life were trying to help, but I was in over my head.

Then Rowan’s godfather, John, visited. He’d been there for me after David died, and for years before that as a trusted and levelheaded adviser. “John,” I said quietly to him one day, “I feel like there’s no hope. I’ve fallen down a dark hole and I’ll never get out.”

John listened to me for a long time. Just listened. Finally he told me that no matter what I was feeling there was always hope. Things would get better. Then, without any judgment whatsoever, he gently insisted that I seek professional help. “When you’re not well, Brooke, you go to the doctor,” he reminded me.

That was the voice I needed to hear in the dark woods to start to find my way out, back to health.

The most important thing that friends can do is to watch and listen. Watch to see if a loved one is retreating or acting down or moody for a prolonged time. Ask them questions about how they feel, about their state of mind. Listen to their answers. Then reassure them. The best advice you can give is reassurance.

I wanted to hear, over and over again, that this would get better. Maybe that’s what David needed to hear too.

2. Give Them Information

Provide information—even if they’re not ready to act on it. Information is a long, strong lifeline. My friend Sherie came over to my apartment one day with a stack of information on postpartum depression that she’d downloaded from the internet. She told me that everything I had said to her on the phone was repeated practically word for word in this material.

I couldn’t imagine that anyone could possibly feel what I was feeling.

I put it near my bedside and said I’d look at it. I didn’t say when. In fact, it was a long time before I could bring myself to read it. But when I was ready, I had all that stuff Sherie printed out for me. Seeing what other people had gone through made me feel less like a freak and less alone. There is hope in community.

3. Be Honest

Honesty is the quality I value most in a friend. Not bluntness, but honesty with compassion. At one of my worst moments I went out to lunch with my friend Stephanie. I’d been taking an antidepressant, but because I felt better I’d stopped taking it without telling my doctor (a foolish and dangerous decision). Now I wasn’t doing well.

Stephanie reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Brooke, you have so much. You can’t forget that. I know you’re grateful. Let’s make a list.” She pulled pad and pencil from her bag. “Write down every blessing in your life.” I did as she said. The act of writing made me feel better, but it wasn’t enough to feel peace or believe I was going to survive this. Later, walking out to the parking lot, Stephanie made me promise to call my doctor as soon as I got home.

I thought about how David had spiraled out of control. He, too, had gone off his meds without telling his doctor. Why did I think I could make the same bad decision? The answer is that someone in crisis can’t always make good choices. The negative thoughts running through my head made sense to me. I not only needed objective advice, I needed medical attention.

4. Pray

I’m always praying for my friends. Not just when they’re in dire straits. I pray for them specifically. I believe that the more specific the prayer the better. So I stay in touch. That way my prayers are focused. Prayer, for me, is about the private quiet plea for help. If I suspect a friend is struggling I’ll leave messages on her answering machine, telling her that she’s in my thoughts. Can I be a pain? Maybe. Still, I’d rather leave a message for someone every day than let them wonder if I cared or risk letting them feel alone.

My friends know I pray for them. That’s important. When I felt there was nothing I could do to help myself, knowing that I was prayed for was often the only thing that stood between me and despair. I made a round of calls. One of the first people I called was my godmother, Lila. All I asked for were her prayers. That might seem like so little, but it felt like so much.

When a friend is in trouble, you need to act. Don’t worry about overreacting. It’s better than the alternative. Too often we’re afraid of intruding or seeming judgmental. But I’ve been on both sides, and there is nothing of greater earthly help than a friend who is willing to reach out, way out if necessary. Listen, give good information, be honest, pray. That’s what friends are for.

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