R U OK? Six Ways to Start the Conversation Sooner

by | Sep 7, 2016 | Mental Health

R U OK? Six Ways to Start the Conversation Sooner

by | Sep 7, 2016 | Mental Health

In the past three years I’ve delivered more than 70 talks on mental health to schools, community groups, and workplaces. In these talks I share my experience of being hospitalised with anorexia at 18 years old. My story has been featured in magazines, on the net, and I even had a brief interview on The Project. I’m no stranger to having frank conversations about mental health. Rarely, though, do conversations I have about mental health begin with me asking someone, ‘R U OK?

I’m ashamed to say, but the closest I’ve come to asking ‘R U OK?’ was to an acquaintance at the gym. We’d be going to the same group fitness classes for about 18 months and over a few weeks I noticed she was not her bright, usual self: she looked exhausted and constantly on the verge of tears. Still, unbelievably, I couldn’t ask her whether she was OK. I thought, “It’s none of your business. She’s fine.” It was a few weeks before I plucked up the courage to ask – turns out she was having a really hard time and we had a good conversation.

In the time I waited to ask R U OK? things could have gotten a lot worse. The statistics around mental health in Australia are dire: suicide is the biggest killer of Australians aged 15-44, with an average of 2,577 deaths by suicide in any one year. It’s too late to wait for a suicide note. We – me and you – need to step in earlier, and that’s where The Approach comes in.

The Approach is the act of starting a conversation with someone you are concerned about. In my experience as a Mental Health First Aid instructor, The Approach can be the most difficult part of assisting a friend, colleague, or loved one. There’s 6 ways we can amp ourselves up for The Approach:

1. Not every conversation has to be heavy.

You don’t have to dive in with the ‘I’ve noticed you’ve missed footy practice for the past few weeks and feeling a bit down…’ You can invite the person out for a walk and see where the conversation leads. Suggest taking a break and going for a coffee.

2. It’s not all on you.

If you’re concerned about someone but have no idea how to do it, make it a team effort and ask someone else what they think. Don’t use this as an opportunity to gossip. Instead, ask the person you confide in ‘who do you think would be the best person to talk to X?’, ‘What is the best way we can do this?’ Getting someone else on board is especially good if you have an unequal relationship with the person of concern, e.g., you’re their supervisor.

3. Think about how you would like to be treated in the same situation.

Thinking about how we would like to be treated during a difficult time can help nudge us into approaching someone. I know when I was ill, I desperately wished someone had just stepped in to ask me whether I was OK rather than assuming I had it all together. Think of it like this, If you were as alone and scared as the person you are concerned about, wouldn’t you want them to check in on you?

4. Be prepared for a negative reaction.

…But understand it’s probably not because of you. There’s many reasons why someone could respond with anger or hostility. When I was ill, a good friend asked me, ‘you’re not losing any more weight, are you?’ and I was so shocked that I lied to her and, because I wasn’t ready for what she had to say, I pushed her away.

5. Connect them with someone who can help.

If you’re not sure what to say when someone says “I’m not OK” then remember this: you don’t have to be a person’s doctor, psychologist, and psychiatrist all rolled up in a neat package. Pat yourself on the back for starting the conversation and listening without judgement, then encourage them to take action by seeking support from trained health professionals.

6. Challenge thoughts that disarm you.

You may be thinking several things when considering approaching someone. ‘It’s none of my business’, ‘they know what they’re doing’, ‘I don’t have time for this’, among others. These are legitimate thoughts but they’re unhelpful for the situation at hand. So, challenge these thoughts by remembering this: even if the response you get is negative, the worst that can happen is that the person realises you care about them. Each time you reach out to someone, you provide them with a lifeline that connects them to reality. The reality being that they are needed and that they are loved.

In the past few years, I’ve experienced the lows of depression and the panic of anxiety. Now that I’m well, what I remember most are the people who cared about me. Those friends who comforted me with a movie, called me out-of-the-blue, or messaged me on Facebook. These people helped me get to the help I needed, and I’m forever grateful. It’s time to pass it along. If you’ve got a gut instinct that something is not quite right in someone else, don’t hesitate to ask R U OK?

R U OK Day is held in September every year. You can find out more about how to ask R U OK? and find local events here.