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When friends aren't enough

Edited by Jill Wright,

when friends aren't enough

I imagine that many psychologists will share my reaction to a Fairfax Media article exploring the background to the tragic suicide of former model and TV presenter, Charlotte Dawson.

Headed, "Friends tried to save fragile Charlotte Dawson", it is, on many levels, profoundly disturbing.

As one of the victim's friends told Fairfax, "There are so many of us that tried so hard for so long to help Charlotte and give her what she needed but, sadly, it was never enough. We just weren't equipped to deal with it.""

The article suggests that Dawson - who according to Fairfax "subscribed to the theory 'you take a pill for everything' had been using a drug called Baclofen for a drinking problem. It describes the drug as "a muscle relaxant".

Baclofen was given international prominence by a French cardiologist Olivier Ameisen, who wrote a book claiming it had cured him of his alcoholism.

The article doesn't mention that Baclofen was developed for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis, and it has been implicated in other tragedies, including the suicide of a British PR executive, in late 2012.

Withdrawal from the drug frequently results in severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and known side-effects include depression and hallucinations.

One of Charlotte Dawson's friends reported that in the week before her death, "She was crying for hours, saying 'I'm not so good' - I knew she wasn't well.""

It seems very clear that Charlotte Dawson was in urgent need of professional assessment and help. A psychologist might have used one of a number of psychotherapeutic approaches which have been proved to be effective for depression and substance abuse, possibly with the collaboration of a medical professional to help manage what can be severe withdrawal symptoms associated with Baclofen.

Too often, in cases like this, the most well-intentioned friends aren't capable of providing the right support; they don't recognise the magnitude of the threat and they don't know how to get the help their friends need. It would be particularly difficult with someone who believed you could take a pill for everything and resisted the advice of friends.

That could lead them to the Internet, where there is no shortage of enthusiasm for apparent quick fixes, such as Baclofen.

Even supposedly respectable companies like Amazon.com could be promoting its abuse. I found the enthusiastic comments at Amazon on Ameisen's book, quite alarming. In my view they amount to an incitement to tinker with dangerous substances.

While there are a handful of warnings there from people who have experienced problems, they are not prominent.

And there are several online forums which support self-dosing experiments.

While some doctors have apparently also been advocating the use of Baclofen as a potential treatment for alcoholism, the majority are much more cautious.

Ameisen's ideas and dosage schedule are still being promoted by the "Baclofen UK World Forum", and although it recommends consulting a doctor, it puts people in contact with Internet sales outlets. It does not mention that Ameisen died prematurely of a heart attack - an ironic end for a cardiologist - last year.

In an article in Psychology Today, Jenna Baddeley writes about the difficulties people can have dealing with troubled friends. She suggests a number of useful strategies, but makes the following crucial point: "If the depressed person needs someone to call in distress in the wee hours of the morning during the time when you need to get your sleep, talks about committing suicide, or has been stuck in the same bad place for months or years on end, they should consult a therapist for professional help."

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.