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“R U Ok”? What to do when someone is not ok?

R U OK? Day

On September 14, R U OK day is celebrating its 9th year.

It began in 2009, created by Gavin Larkin who sadly lost his father Barry, to suicide in 1995. Tragically, not long after starting R U OK, Gavin passed away from lymphoma. His legacy lives on and R U OK day continues to grow each year.

Initially, R U OK day was met with mixed emotions. It had strong backing by health organisations who liked the approach behind the push towards connecting us with our mates, social groups and families on an emotional level. Incorporating mental health with physical wellbeing by sharing our emotional challenges through life is a critical step toward our own mindfulness. However, the emotional side of the approach was met with uncomfortableness by many. I remember when R U OK day first started and some people would ask, “Are you okay”? With a sarcastic tone; there was some mockery and insincerity about it. People were using humour to negotiate their way through it, to deal with the uncomfortableness.

Let’s explore that a little….

Laughter and humour are commonly used as a form of defence in Australian culture, to make light of and diffuse uncomfortable situations. Social psychology research backs this, and it’s likely we all know someone who has an ‘anxious laugh’. We use laughter and humour to deflect attention away from ourselves during an awkward moment. We use it to remove the focus on us. Sometimes we even try to self-deprecate to appear to others that we have a great sense of humour in order to become accepted in social groups.

The common feature in all of this is avoidance. We often don’t like to become involved in emotional or socially awkward conversations, or situations in which we don’t know how to act or respond. R U OK day helped to make this easier for us. The emphasis on providing the ‘right’ response or the ‘correct’ behaviour was removed, and replaced with a shift in focus to having a conversation with a friend, co-worker or family member, and simply asking the question, “are you okay”? And while we may not be prepared for a possible “no” response, starting the conversation and not avoiding it is what’s important.

As each year passes, awareness of the extent of damage that suicide does is recognised. Each year approximately 3000 people in Australia take their own lives. This leaves up to 3000 families, workplaces, friendship circles, sports clubs, schools, universities, small business, charities and health professionals affected. We don’t laugh, smirk or joke about R U Ok day anymore.

What do we do, when inevitably, someone replies with, “I’m not ok”?

There are two options that I would encourage you to pursue. Firstly, if you don’t know what to say it’s important to let that person know that they are not alone and to listen to what they want to tell you. You buddy up, you stick with them and you find a way to get them to someone who can help. This doesn’t mean you need to live in their pocket, it’s simply about removing the isolation and loneliness from that individual. Help is coming and you are getting there together. Your immediate points of call should be

  • a GP that either of you trust; make an appointment ASAP

  • call lifeline for advice on 13 11 14

  • contact a local Headspace clinic

The second option is to engage in conversation. This isn’t something that you need to be a professional for, you just need to communicate with this person (who is likely a friend, family member or colleague). The key is to be empathetic and attentive to what they are telling you and provide reassurance that there is help available. Due to the nature of what they might tell you it’s really important not to be judgemental or downplay their concerns. If the topic of suicide is brought up, don’t shy away from it, confront it. Explore why that seems like an option, any information you might pick up could help save a life. If you feel that this is an immediate and life threatening situation, call 000 or lifeline immediately.

The final critical step is to keep following up. Ask them how things are, share in the moments as they find happiness within themselves and in life. Embrace the fact that you were able to help someone through a dark time.

R U OK day gives us a great reminder and prod to ask a simple question one day per year. My dream is that it becomes the simple question that we ask on any day, at any time, anywhere.

If this article has raised issues for you, please contact Beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36, Lifeline on 13 11 14. Or as discussed in the article, talk to a loved one or someone who you trust and can give support.


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