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With a Little Help from our Friends

Kathleen Folbigg was just 35 when convicted of the murder of her four infant children and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. She was no stranger to tragedy and loss; her mother had left her with a violent father when 18 months old, a man who subsequently tracked her mother down and murdered her. Raised by a couple who she knew to be her adoptive parents she only learned of her early history at 15 and by 17 she had moved out. She married, but one by one her babies died and at her trial her husband and foster sister testified against her. It is hard to comprehend how she survived but she had one asset that proved invaluable to her mental health and her freedom. Kathleen Folbigg had friends.

Friends are sometimes referred to as the family we choose in contrast to the family into which we are born or adopted. It is a devoted relationship between two people, a bond of mutual affection based on shared interests and feelings. It is characterized by kindness, generosity, loyalty, honesty, and a positive and supportive exchange. Cleary et. al. (2018) cites authors who attest to the protective mental health benefits of social connectedness and having a close friend in whom to confide. Friends provide companionship, support, and the promotion of a healthy sense of self. Conversely the absence of friends is a risk factor for mental ill health and suicide. Our peer identity, those we choose to be with and who are ‘like us’ is a key facet of identity and we are poorer without it.

Kathleen Folbigg’s friendships dated from childhood and adolescence and exemplified many of their best features. One spoke of her toughness and willingness to stand up to bullies on her behalf when they first met in high school while another who had been a friend since kindergarten reconnected after the conviction. This woman became her staunchest advocate, calling and visiting when she could and arguing on her behalf in the justice system. Characteristic of good friendship she confronted Kathleen about the contents of diaries that had been central to her conviction and asked that she explain herself. Convinced of Kathleen’s innocence she become her staunchest ally, personally attracting abuse for her loyalty.

As couple and family therapists we can become overfocussed on these relationships and overlook the power and protectiveness of friendships. Ensuring we ask about friends both past and current and including them on the ecogram is important and provides a source of information and support that is easily overlooked. Gathering to coordinate support around a friend who is struggling can be beneficial to everyone. Friends are often worried and rendered impotent and silenced by another’s grief, hopelessness and suicidality and welcome an opportunity to speak openly and freely of their fears and plan a coordinated path forward. For a person experiencing distress their friend’s willingness to meet and work towards a better future with them can be a key turning point. As Kathleen Folbigg’s friends proved, it is a powerful relationship.

Michelle Cleary, David Lees & Jan Sayers (2018) Friendship and Mental Health, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 39:3, 279-281, DOI: 10.1080/01612840.2018.143144

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