R U OK? Here's What To Do If Someone Says 'No'

When it comes to promoting mental wellness, there’s a gap between social acceptance and social adeptness.

And that’s what we need to bridge as we again mark R U OK Day. How do we go from asking the now ubiquitous question to having the meaningful and supportive conversation if the honest answer is “No”.

Over the years, it’s become totally okay to ask our friends, family and work colleagues if they’re okay. Not only once a year, but more broadly it’s widely accepted to acknowledge the reality of emotional distress and mental illness -- be it someone who is depressed, anxious or even someone who is actively suicidal.

Once taboo, it’s now become widely accepted to acknowledge the reality of emotional distress and mental illness. (Image: Getty Images)

For that, mental health campaigners, our community and even our politicians deserve credit. In a short time, as a society, we have had the maturity and decency to take what was taboo and treat it as a tragic but true part of “normal” life for many of us (with some 20 percent of Australians experiencing a mental health issue).

READ MORE: Why Mental Health Should Be A Dinner Table Conversation

READ MORE: How To Talk About Mental Health

And, we’ve ventured further and made it increasingly okay to talk about that once strongly stigmatised and silent subject -- suicide. Now we’re being much more open about the fact that some 80 percent of the community has been somehow impacted by the approximately 3000 deaths per year.

So it’s now okay to acknowledge. It’s now okay to ask.

But what about if your teenage daughter or the barista you’ve become friends with, or that more distant friend online, says: “No, I’m actually not okay.” What about if they want to tell you about the hurt they’re feeling or the confusion they’re experiencing?

Do we need to have special skills to get them through?

In our own nervousness, and out of love, will we say something that will make it worse for them or even instigate self-harm?

Switch on all your kindness. Image: Getty.

On R U OK Day, let’s reassure ourselves that as a community, as individuals, as mates and as loved ones we have what it takes to help. It’s called being human and having ears. While there’s a huge role for professional and medical help -- and we need more resources for it -- our mental wealth as a nation starts with supporting each other, and we’re all capable of it.

READ MORE: My Fairy-Tale Romance With Osher And His Mental Health

How do wonderful organisations like Lifeline, beyondblue, Roses in the Ocean, headspace, other services and their staff and volunteers, help people?

Fundamentally, what they do is listen. Very actively and intently listen.

Here’s a simple listener’s checklist:

  • Push the pause button and park my own concerns and worries
  • Switch on all my kindness
  • Commit to fully and patiently hearing what my friend in pain has to say
  • Ask gentle questions about where my friend is at
  • If I’m picking up on something, directly ask: are you thinking of suicide? (This happens thousands of times every day at Lifeline because it’s proven to help people who are waiting to unburden themselves of what’s often secret.)
  • If my friend is at risk, work with my friend to find professional or medical help
  • And, don’t give advice my friend didn’t ask for (as that’s what we tend to do when we stop listening).

Think about it. You know the term “full and undivided attention”? Well, how did you feel the last time somebody actually did give you their complete care and concentration? When they didn’t give you their opinion or “constructive feedback” but just really heard what you had to say? I’m thinking it felt pretty affirming -- and it happens too little in our very busy, noisy and digitally connected-but-disconnected world.

Trust your open ears and your open heart and many will go from asking “Are you okay?” to being more okay.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Pete Shmigel is the former CEO of Lifeline. He is a Board member with Australian Men’s Health Network and Roses in the Ocean, a suicide prevention organisation.