02 Oct What to say after “R U OK?”
Today is “R U OK?” Day. As a society, we have come a long way in the past decade in de-stigmatising mental health difficulties. The “R U OK?” campaign has successfully encouraged us to ask the question if we see changes in colleagues or friends that might mean they are not travelling well. Starting the conversation can feel uncomfortable. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they get angry or upset with me? What if they just tell me to mind my own business? These are all reasonable and normal fears, but you still should start the conversation because you could make a huge difference to someone’s wellbeing.
R U OK suggest planning to have the conversation first. Think about what you are going to say and where is the best place to have a talk. Prepare for the possibility of an emotional response or denial. Think about the behaviour changes you have noticed. When you are ready to have the conversation, relax and breathe. Switch on active listening skills. One of the possible issues with asking “Are you OK?” is the temptation for someone to reply, “Yes, I’m fine” and shut down the interchange. Use your own words and try more open questions like:
- “Hey, how have you been lately? What’s been happening?”
- “You haven’t seemed yourself lately –I would really like to listen to what is going on for you.”
- “What’s going on for you at the moment?”
- “How are you doing? Anything you want to chat about?”
- Then be prepared to state what you have observed about their behaviour that has worried you, coming from a position of empathy and care.
Listening effectively is important. Try not to take anything personally that is said and reflect back your understanding of what the person has told you without falling into the role of a counsellor. Take what they say seriously, without judgement, and don’t interrupt or rush them. Help them think about one or two things that they could do to better manage the situation and ask “What can I do to help you get through this?” or “How would you like me to support you?”. If necessary, encourage them to see a doctor, mental health professional or their workplace Employee Assistance Program. This is particularly important if they’ve been feeling really low for more than 2 weeks. You could say, “It might be useful to link in with someone who can support you. I’m happy to help you find the right person to talk to.”
If they deny the problem, acknowledge that they are not ready to talk. It is important to avoid a confrontation. You could say something like “I understand you don’t feel like talking at the moment but I am here when you are ready” or “Is there someone else you would like to talk to instead?”. Tell them you are still concerned about them and you care about them. Then follow-up in a week or two with something like “I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to know how you’ve been going since we last talked.” If the person is really struggling and they have been considering suicide or self-harm, stay calm and stay with them. Offer them your support, encourage them to seek professional help and if you are worried about their safety let someone know, even if they have asked you not to.
As employers or colleagues, we can all create a culture in which people feel confident talking about mental health problems. It is our legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace. But most importantly, these conversations can make a real difference to people having difficulties and this makes having the conversation the right and decent thing to do as well. Dr Louise Burn recently wrote for ABC about the staggering rise in suicide rates in Australia, with a loss on average of 1 person every 3 hours to suicide:
“Humans are social animals. One of the most powerful and life-affirming things we can do as human beings is connect with other people. When we feel connected, validated, supported, we are more able to face the challenges of life. When we feel isolated, rejected or misunderstood, we are more likely to struggle.
The burdens of life weigh heavily on all of us, but much more so when we carry them alone… By simply talking about our mental health we lessen the burdens of life and yet mental health is still often not discussed particularly in rural, regional and remote communities where the “she’ll be right” ethos of soldiering on can create a barrier to acknowledging we are feeling overwhelmed.”
We need to start the conversation and keep it going.
Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467