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Keeping Old Friends

Helping a Friend in Need

Too often depression and anxiety are taboo topics, even among friends.  Irish musician Seamus Kelleher has made it his mission to change that attitude and to help us reach out to troubled friends. Seamus, 64, was first treated for depression in his early twenties. Although bouts of depression continued throughout his life, he has enjoyed successful careers as a corporate speechwriter, teacher and as a Celtic musician with a large following both in the U.S. and his native Ireland.

Now he’s started a fourth career as a motivational speaker, talking about depression, anxiety and alcohol addiction. His presentation, “Shine the Light,” combines music, humor and his personal experience. He most recently traveled to Houston where he presented to medical professionals and students at Baylor University Medical Center.  We chatted with him on the phone about how to approach friends who seem in distress. Seamus cautioned that his suggestions are not a substitute for medical intervention, if warranted. 

Q. What inspired you to begin motivational speaking?

A. I wrote an article a few years back about battling depression. I received a lot of feedback especially from folks who were dealing with their own struggles. I was shocked at the amount of people who reached out to me directly—most I would never have known were dealing with their own challenges.

I have been blessed to get the help I needed when things were bad for me and my message is centered around helping others do the same. Speaking engagements where I can reach many people at one time seemed like the perfect way to do that. I’ve been a speechwriter, I love talking in front of people, and I have a story to tell. It’s hugely rewarding.

Q. With the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there is a heightened awareness of mental health issues. You’ve written that it’s almost impossible to describe what depression feels like unless you are going through it. How can you detect it in a friend?

A. We all have bad days, but depression involves a level of darkness where you lose all hope for today and tomorrow. It impacts every aspect of your life. If you notice something is dramatically impacting your friend’s behavior and mood on a daily basis, then it’s time try to start a conversation and ask some common sense questions to uncover the cause. It might very well be they are experiencing some form of depression. You might begin with, “You don’t seem yourself. Is everything okay?” Sometimes, a simple conversation can help them through a rough patch. It might be the first time they have an opportunity to express to someone the pain they are experiencing. The number of people who suffer from depression and don’t seek help is staggering.

Q. What’s the next step?

A. There is no script here. The goal is to get them to open up and talk about what’s going on. People don’t want to feel judged or embarrassed on front of others. Many people suffering depression have huge feelings of guilt that they brought this upon themselves.

Q. Because of the stigma surrounding depression, many people are reluctant to talk even if you ask. Any other suggestions?

A. You will be very surprised how often people open up if you change the environment. Get creative; suggest a walk or lunch. Offer to drive them somewhere. You can learn a lot in a 20-minute ride; sometimes the floodgates open in such a situation. People are often afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone who is suffering. As long as your conversation is based on caring and empathy, you can be assured you are helping your friend see some light in a time of darkness.

Q. What’s the goal?

A. If you hang in there, hopefully your friend will open up and admit there is an issue. The next step is to persuade them to seek professional help. There is help out there in the form of therapists, psychiatrists, medication or even hospitalization. Most likely it will be a combination of the above. Offer to assist them saying, “Why don’t we try to find someone who can help you?”

Q. What else is important to keep in mind?

A. Trust is monumental. You have to be very respectful that whatever a friend tells you stays in confidence unless you are worried about their wellbeing to the extent they might do themselves harm. When you develop trust, that’s when they open up and the real stuff happens.  Also don’t give up.  You don’t have to have a deep conversation every time you see the person but you might ask, “By the way, how are you doing?” My message is simple: There is always hope as long as you keep the conversation going. Finally, all you can do is try to help someone who is struggling.

If they refuse the help you are offering, it is not your fault and you should not burden yourself with that. The important thing is to try your best and keep the channels of communication open. If things escalate and you fear the worst, you or your friend can call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They have trained professionals on hand 24/7 who can deal with the crisis and provide the resources needed to move forward.

–by Mary W. Quigley


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