Asking R U Really OK?

Today is ‘R U OK’ Day.  This important addition to the mental health calendar reminds us that everyone, no matter who we are, can do something very simple to support others’ mental health.  We know there’s a lot of need – about one in five Australians experience anxiety or depression each and every year.  It’s hard though – nearly two-thirds of Australians say that they’re not confident about noticing that someone is struggling with their mental health.

So what can we do?  We can ask R U OK?  And this year, the focus is on asking R U really, OK?

It’s so easy for all of us to just say ‘yeah great’ or ‘I’m fine’.

That means if you want to find out what’s going on for someone, you might need to ask them more than once.  R U OK? Yes, but are you really OK?  Most people understand that when they’re being asked for the second time, the person asking really does want to know – showing genuine interest makes a huge difference.

When do I ask?

If you want to make sure that the person you’re asking is going to understand that you really want to know if they’re OK, there are a few things to think about first.  Are you in a fairly quiet and private space when you ask?  If you can’t meet face to face – as so many of us can’t right now – what’s the best format? Zoom or phone? A text message? Is it a good time to ask?  Is the person in a hurry or rushing off to other commitments?  Can you take the pressure off by asking how they are during another activity, such as – if restrictions allow - exercising, on a walk or in the car?

There might also be times to ask someone if they’re struggling such as when they’re having a major health issue, they are bereaved or having a relationship breakdown. Sometimes it might just be that you are seeing small signs that things are not going well for that person.

What stops me asking?

What stops us asking R U OK? For most people, it’s worrying that they won’t know what to say or do if the person says that they’re not OK. Remember that just asking the question and showing that you really want to hear the answer is already doing something. For a person who is feeling isolated, upset, down or anxious, having someone notice that they are struggling and checking in with them can feel like a lifeline.  And it doesn’t mean that you have to solve the person’s difficulties yourself.  Sometimes the person you ask won’t want to talk to you.  That’s fine, just let them know that you’re happy to talk to them in the future or suggest they could speak to someone they feel comfortable with. And if you see no change in the person as the days go by, it’s good to ask again­­ R U OK?

What do I do if the person is not OK?

There’s a lot you can do, no matter who you are.  Listening, reassuring, supporting and acknowledging the person’s situation is a really good start.  Remember you don’t have to solve their problems – you just need to be there to hear them.  Don’t rush the person or interrupt them – just let them tell you what’s going on.  It’s important to reassure the person that their difficulties are not silly or a waste of time.  Some people feel worried about sharing their issues because they think others will laugh at them, or not understand.

A helpful thing to do is to encourage action.  They may not be able to solve their problems but asking questions like ‘is there something I can do to help, even a little?’ or ‘is there one thing you could do that might not solve the problem but would make this situation just a little bit better?’ help people to start to see their difficulties as a series of small steps rather than one huge mountain to climb.

Checking in with people regularly is also helpful.  If a person has talked to you, following up with them a few days or a week later shows that you continue to care, and that you want to be helpful.  Having someone ‘in their corner’ can make a huge difference. And of course, encouraging people to contact sources of professional support if they need it will also help.

Looking after yourself

You also need to consider your own self-care.

Bear your own mental state in mind – if you are struggling yourself, you might not have the resources to support someone else right now.  But you can still ask someone if they are OK, and then support them to find help somewhere else

Remember that you are not responsible for the person you ask.  If they are struggling significantly and you are concerned they might self-harm, for example, that person may need professional help and it is not reasonable for them to ask you to keep it a secret – your own mental health is important too.

It can also help you to support someone if you share the support with others (with the agreement of the person needing support).  If you are the only person supporting someone, it can become tiring and difficult to continue caring – this is known as ‘compassion fatigue’.  Finding a group of people who can all help to support someone will help to ensure that everyone can be there for the person who is struggling.

Help is available, speak with someone today. Lifeline Australia 13 11 14; Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636; QLife 1800 184 527