by Dana Mrkich
This year R U OK? Day falls on Thursday 9 September 2021. This is an annual mental health and a suicide-prevention initiative encouraging Australians to ask their friends, family and colleagues “Are you okay?” The theme for this year is, quite understandably, “Are you really okay?”
Over the past 18 months, we’ve been living with constant uncertainty and change triggering a rollercoaster of mental/emotional responses including:
- Worries about job security and financial stability
- Anxiety about the future
- Health-related fears
- Overwhelm due to juggling working from home with kids and home-school
- Loneliness and depression are connected to social isolation and not being able to participate in our usual activities with friends, family and community
- Issues arising from the increase in frequency and severity of domestic violence/abuse against women and children, known as the Shadow Pandemic
Over the last year, Lifeline’s calls have increased by 20%. Kids Helpline calls have increased even more. Calls from teens have gone up by 34%. A survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics into the household impact of Covid-19 revealed that “1 in 5 Australians are reporting a high or very high level of psychological distress” with a third of people in Victoria – having experienced the most number of days in lockdown – reporting “feelings associated with depression and anxiety”.
While initially, people pulled together with a sense of togetherness and resilience, Ian Hickie from Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, says we can only handle acute stress in that way for a short period of time. Hickie has been “mapping the mental health impacts of the pandemic right across Australia.” He says “We’re now into a prolonged chronic stress situation, which is exhausting.”
On the one hand, the pandemic has increased mental health awareness, escalating it as a priority across Australian workplaces. However, there is still a deeply ingrained belief among many people that mental health issues are something we should be able to shake off. People can feel shame about feeling how they feel and internalise it rather than reaching out. Others just learn to live with it: feeling sad, depressed, numb, angry or overwhelmed becomes their normal. We would never dream of walking around feeling chronically unwell without attending to it if it were a physical health issue, yet the very nature of a mental health issue can prevent someone from getting the support they need.
Men especially are less likely to seek help, with too many still feeling it is a weakness to acknowledge something isn’t quite right. More than 3000 people die by suicide in Australia each year, with 75% of those being men. Women have higher rates of intentional self-harm. While conversation alone will not prevent every instance of self-harm or suicide, it can certainly open doorways of much-needed communication, and ideally, lead to appropriate counselling and assistance.
Why aren’t we having “R U OK” conversations more often? We can feel helpless when we see or suspect, that someone we know is suffering. We aren’t sure what to say and don’t want to make things worse by saying the wrong thing.
The R U OK Day initiative recommend 4 simple steps that could change a life:
- ASK: If you are concerned about someone, ask them how they are going. Be relaxed and friendly in your approach. You can be specific about things you have observed, for example: “I noticed you’ve been quieter than usual lately.” If you are working from home, or are experiencing covid restrictions that prevent you from seeing your loved ones, it isn’t always as easy to recognize changes in a person’s behaviour as when you see them more often. It is important to pay attention when you realise a friend you usually chat to regularly hasn’t called in a while, doesn’t respond to messages or sounds different when you talk. There may be a reasonable explanation, but rather than assume that they’re just busy or tired, it doesn’t hurt to ask: “Is everything okay?” or “Let me know if you need to chat about anything.”
- LISTEN: Listen with your full attention – don’t be scrolling through your phone or checking emails at the same time as the person is speaking. Let them talk freely while you listen with an open mind and heart. You aren’t there to give advice, offer well-meaning platitudes or fix anything. Refrain from making any judgements, assumptions or diving in with a comparison story about when this happened to someone else you know. In this step, the person just needs to be heard, and to have someone care enough to just listen without interrupting them or dismissing their feelings.
- ENCOURAGE ACTION: Once they have freely spoken and said all they want to say, you can then ask some questions to encourage their movement forward. A few examples given by the R U OK Day initiative include: “What have you done in the past to manage similar situations?”, “What is something good you can do for yourself right now? Something relaxing or enjoyable?” and “What can I do for you right now?” If they have been feeling distressed, depressed or not themselves for longer than 2 weeks, encourage them to speak to a health professional. Rather than say “You need to talk to someone” which can feel quite overwhelming/confronting, you could say “It might be helpful to chat to an expert who can support you. Can I help you find the right person to speak to?” The focus then becomes more on the solution – on someone who can help.
If you have serious concerns that the person is at risk of suicide, rather than asking “Are you thinking about hurting yourself”, a more powerful question is “When was the last time you thought about hurting yourself?” Be with them as they call a health professional or make an appointment to see one.
- CHECK IN: Keep in touch. Put a reminder in your diary to give them a call in a week or two – or sooner depending on the situation. Let them know that you’re just checking in to see how they’re going. Don’t judge anything they may or may not have done since you spoke. They may have just needed someone to talk to that day. Don’t underestimate how helpful you’ve been. Knowing someone cared enough to ask ‘Are you okay? Are you really okay?’ and took time to listen to the reply, can change a person’s life.
R U OK Day is a particularly good day to check in with your team. Reassure them that it is okay to not always be okay, especially during this time. Emphasise that support and resources are available for anyone who needs to talk or reach out.