Are You Okay? Nobody Knew What To Do When I Said 'No'

"It’s okay to not be okay."

“Let’s take care of ourselves and each other.”

“You’re not alone. You’re loved. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask.”

These messages are warm. They’re loving. They’re well-meaning.

They also risk becoming little more than cute, meaningless aphorisms if the message doesn’t evolve soon. They overlook a complex and flawed mental health system -- one that nearly failed me during one of my darkest times.

Earlier this year, I was doing it tough. In the space of three years, I’d experienced a lot of loss in my life, which became overwhelming. I lost my dad, my best friend, a job I loved, then my partner. It was becoming difficult to process so much different and complex grief.

'It's okay not to be okay' didn't help me process my complex grief. (Image: Getty)

My friends were great. I reached out to them; they checked in with me. We did all the things those cute buzzwords encourage.

It helped to a point; I’m grateful to have such supportive friends and family.

But my friends aren’t trained counsellors. It became apparent I needed to visit my doctor to ask about professional help. I had no shame in doing so.

My doctor sent me to a psychologist costing $95 a session; I was likely to need a minimum of 10 sessions. I couldn't really afford it, which only added to my stress.

The psychologist told me there was a six month waiting list. I couldn’t wait six months for an appointment. I feared I’d spiral further downwards.

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My doctor’s curt response was he only knew that one psychologist he’d recommended. So I was left with Doctor Google.

I didn't know the difference between a psychologist, a counsellor, a therapist and a psychiatrist -- the vocabulary was overwhelming. I didn’t know which support was right for me. All I knew is I couldn't wait six months to feel okay.

I’d told my doctor I preferred an LGBTQI specific counsellor. In the end, after much confusion, I discovered myself that the charity ACON offered a discounted service for low income earners, like freelance journalists, and a counsellor was available almost immediately.

The buzzwords are a good conversation starter, but I was largely left to navigate a complex mental health system alone. (Image: Getty)

The sessions helped a lot. But why didn’t my doctor recommend this? Or that I could get 10 Medicare rebated individual psychologist or group sessions under the Australian Government's Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative? It’d have saved me heaps of added stress and anxiety.

'Are you okay?' 'Would you like to talk?' We need to be asking more sophisticated questions than this. The sweetness of these over-simplified questions glosses over the darkness that can happen next.

If the answer is 'no, I’m not okay, but I can't afford a psychologist, there's a six month waiting list and I might kill myself before then without support but don't want to be committed', what's your response? That cuteness fades. This terminology needs to progress.

I hear these well-meaning sayings time and again -- not just for last week’s World Mental Health Day, but also during October’s Mental Health Month, and throughout the year, from excellent mental health charities doing important work, and their supporters.

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I get why they do it. Eight people die by suicide daily in Australia. Research shows feeling isolated or burdensome increases suicide risk. That’s what makes “reaching out” so important -- especially for men who’ve traditionally been tentative to discuss their feelings.

Breaking down mental health stigma is also crucial -- especially for people who equate mental health challenges with weakness, or a question mark over their credibility or decision-making skills.

A powerful stigma-busting technique is humour. It was great to see Prince Harry and Ed Sheeran’s video, making light of their ginger hair. "If you know someone going through a difficult time, reach out to them -- it makes a big difference", was their message.

It’s that same cute message again. It leaves an uncomfortable ellipsis... what next?

What happens when you “reach out” or “check in,” and somebody isn’t doing well mentally? If, on RUOK Day, we ask that question and the answer is no? No, I’m not okay.

All the current messaging advises us to “listen” to the friend in need, then encourage them to “take action”.

And that means seeking professional help, by going through your doctor. This is where the messaging becomes problematic.

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The current messaging also puts the onus on us. Many of us increasingly do this. We know how to be good mates. The challenging of toxic masculinity is dispelling the ‘strong stoic bloke’ myth. More people are sharing their mental health stories than ever. We’re checking in more. The public is perhaps ahead of the mental health sector at this point; the narrative is shifting.

So the sector needs to shift with it. And we need to start asking more urgent questions than RUOK?

Like, can you afford the mental health support you need? If not, do you know where to turn for affordable support?

Do you know which mental health support is right for you? Will group therapy or individual appointments help?

If there's a long waiting list, can your doctor help expedite it?

Are doctors sufficiently mental health trained?

Should there be a mental health specialist on every surgery site to help navigate Australia's complex mental health system?

Should employers encourage people to take mental health days?

The buzzwords are a great conversation starter; now upskill us on the terminology between a psychologist and psychiatrist. It could result in whether or not we end up medicated or in the therapist’s chair.

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The mental health sector’s messaging needs to start respecting our intelligence and friendship ability.

It’s okay not to be okay -- in 2019, hardly anyone disputes this!

What’s not okay is that support is six months away and prohibitively expensive, yet some doctors simply shrug and call in their next patient.

I’m not okay with that broken system. That's something we need to be asking about.

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. Find more information on beyondblue’s New Access program here.