I need help...or should I say my ex-roommate needs help. Last year, we both attended the same college, but I fell into a severe depression and dropped out. Now I am doing much better and attending a different school. The problem is my ex-roommate is now plagued with the same problem I went through - except she also suffers from panic attacks. She calls me constantly, telling me she wants to die and that she's cutting herself. She is in therapy and on medication, but I can see she's heading downhill. I know exactly what she is going through, because I went through it all myself.
"What can I do? I am there for her to talk to, but I feel that my own mental health hangs in the balance also. She is my best friend in the world. Please help us".
You are wonderful. I wish more people were like you; doing everything in your power to help your friend. This is why I chose your question to answer, although I normally like a lot more information to work with, and also an email address so I can send my reply directly.
First, about your friend (though this applies to you too): You say she is currently undergoing therapy and is on medication, but it doesn't seem to be working. I suspect that your friendship is of more value to her than what the "experts" are offering.
One of my rules is: "If something works, do more of it. If it doesn't work, try something else." There are many approaches to therapy. If what she is getting is no good, she should go elsewhere. I suggest she look for a psychologist who uses Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. In particular, seek someone who is competent at using the technique developed by Aaron Beck.
Beck has written many easily readable, non-technical self-help books for people suffering from problems like depression and anxiety. Find them, read them, and act on them - both of you. You would also get a lot out of reading my book: "Anger and Anxiety: Be in charge of your emotions and control phobias". If you check out my web site, I have posted a great deal of helpful information.
The final point for your friend is that she has the power to turn her life around, you don't. No one but her can do it. I was also severely depressed when I was your age, but got myself out of it. If you did, she can too.
Now, about you as a helper: This is a heavy load for you, because you are approaching it from the wrong angle. She will drag you down if you are a "fellow traveler" or if you are a friend. You can help if you stay apart from her emotions, that is, you need to be a problem solver. The dilemma is, 'how can I help her to see this differently'? By concentrating on your problem of how to help her, you will not endanger yourself.
When she is distressed and needs to unload on you, the best thing you can do is 'reflective listening': let her talk, and indicate in little ways that you have heard the message beneath her words. You might repeat back what you think she meant, and ask if that's correct.
However, when she is down, she will only see the bad. She will ignore, misinterpret, or rapidly forget good things. As helper, it is your job to find the good, and when you repeat back what she said, to include these exceptions into her current negative world view.
You know her. When she says something that is a distortion, overgeneralization, or inaccuracy, you need to challenge this with specific instances from her life. Or demand that she find such examples.
At my web site, read the pages on "Narrative Therapy" and "Cognitive Therapy". These, and chapter 7 of my book will help you and your friend. Have a good life!