Our culture, as Australians, is pretty simple; when you come across a fellow human, you ask “how are ya?” And you respond “yeah, good, how are you?” We’re conditioned to be “good,” to not speak about our problems, to not be emotional burdens. But sometimes that’s not OK.
Tomorrow is national R U OK? Day in Australia, which comes in an ironically timely fashion for me; after a few pretty good weeks, I’m going through a(nother) nasty little stormy patch right now. It comes and goes so quickly and with SO little warning. If you’re a fellow Aussie, you may have also noticed Buddy Franklin in the news over the last day or so, dealing with something similar, with some of his closest family and friends stating that they were unaware of his battle with mental illness. Ahhh to have a dollar every time that phrase was uttered… “Ohh, I had no idea, you seem so normal!” (I’m not a bloody alien!) And that’s the thing that makes mental illness so deadly; people still don’t talk about it because they’re, I dunno, embarrassed about it, feel awkward about it, still believe in the stigmas attached (all because the education isn’t there). And so, this horribly isolating, dangerous disease (every single bit as deadly as other serious PHYSICAL illnesses, by the way) goes unnoticed, often until its too late. And that’s what R U OK? Day is all about.
If you’ve never heard of it or seen the logo, in their own words, they are:
…a not-for-profit organisation founded by Gavin Larkin in 2009, whose vision is a world where we’re all connected and are protected from suicide. Accordingly, our mission is to encourage and equip everyone to regularly and meaningfully ask “are you OK?”
We know that suicide prevention is an enormously complex and sensitive challenge the world over. But we also know that some of the world’s smartest people have been working tirelessly and developed credible theories that suggest there’s power in that simplest of questions – “Are you OK?”
I’ve written a little about my own struggle with depression, anxiety and disordered eating before on here, but as a general rule, I’m not super open with it. Actually, let me re-word that; if I’m asked, I’m honest. If someone is genuinely asking, from a non-judgmental place, what’s going on and wants to know how I feel and where I’m at and how I got to that point, I will be open and candid about it. I don’t feel shame over it; it is what it is. Some people are affected by diabetes, and they don’t have to apologise for it. Some people are coaelic, and that’s not their fault. People with Crohn’s disease or endometriosis or melanoma aren’t expected to have to defend themselves and the perceived ‘inconvenience’ their illness is causing for people who don’t understand it. This is no different. For whatever reason, the way my brain is wired and the way the chemicals interact up there has caused me to end up with depression. I am not depression, but I do suffer from it. It doesn’t define me, but it does affect me.
As for the aspect of it all that R U OK? deal with, suicide, that’s not a subject I’ve written about before, and I’m not certain I ever will. It’s a difficult subject to broach; it’s something that everyone has an opinion on, and those opinions are all very personal and formed from our own experiences. I also tend not to discuss it because, like mental illness full stop, a lot of people out there don’t take it seriously. I will post a review on this book next week, because I think it’s completely necessary reading for every single person who is or knows someone affected by depression (basically everyone on the planet), but in his absolutely brilliant book Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes this:
“Suicide is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organization, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, gun crime – put together… Yet people still don’t think depression really is that bad.”
Those statistics, I think, really speak for themselves. So, instead of discussing my thoughts on suicide per se, I want to focus on one big thing we can do to prevent it. It’s easy enough that anyone can do it, it costs nothing, and it could save a life. Wanna know what this big thing is? Talking.
The theory behind R U OK? is that a simple conversation could be all it could take to save a life. Talking, asking, listening, opening the conversation and therefore taking the stigma and secrecy out of the suffering. It’s as simple to affect change as just asking someone “are you OK?”
How to ask
Like I said, it’s a difficult subject. It’s hard enough to talk about your own feelings of hopelessness, let alone ask someone else about theirs. If there’s someone in your life you’re worried about and who seems like they’re doing it a bit tough, here are a few ways you can ask them if they’re OK…
1. Make time for it: Personally, while I appreciate friends asking me if I’m OK, there’s nothing worse than being asked at an inappropriate time or place, because then it kinda feels like they’re only asking because they feel like they have to, not because they want to. Ask R U OK? when you have time to stop and listen to the response, not as you’re rushing off between appointments. And consider where you are, too – the middle of the office or a quiet cafe might not be the best!
2. Let them know you’re concerned and don’t take no for an answer. Then, just let them talk: After asking “are you OK?” you’ll most likely be met with “yeah, fine, why?” Don’t take it at face value – if you know this person well, and your gut is telling you they’re not fine, call them on it. Tell them that you’re not entirely sure you believe that, and while you may not understand exactly what they’re going through, you’d like to try to understand and help where you can. If you’re worried, don’t let it go. Once you’ve expressed your concern, then just let them talk. When you’re used to keeping it all bottled up and someone actually, genuinely makes the time and effort to ask if you’re OK, it takes a little time to express what’s going on. Give them a moment to gather their thoughts, and when they do start talking, don’t feel the need to jump in and problem solve; sometimes just giving voice to what’s been swimming around in your head helps!
3. Let them know it’s not their fault: People who struggle with mental illnesses of all sorts often feel like it’s their fault. Like they’ve done something wrong to deserve it. One of the most comforting things you do is reassure them that this is not their fault, that yes it is a shitty situation, but it’s not their fault they’re in it. Depression is a nasty, irrational illness, and it doesn’t discriminate who it chooses to shoot down. But no one asks for it.
4. Do NOT say any of the following things, under ANY circumstances:
– It’s all in your head, you’re fine.
– You have a great life, I don’t know what you could possibly be so depressed about.
– There are heaps of people who are worse off than you.
– Just smile!
– You can actually control this, just decide to be happy.
– Yeah I know what it’s like, I have shit days too.- This has been going on for a while, shouldn’t you be better by now?
– Shit happens, just get over it.
– You’re so over dramatic, you just want attention.
And in case you’re wondering, I speak from personal experience here. Yes, people have said all of those things to me at some point. Some of them have even been said by family members. This is why I don’t have a lot of meaningful relationships anymore.
5. Set boundaries: While it’s very tempting to want to jump straight in to savior mode when a loved one is hurting, that’s not necessarily the best thing for either of you. Yes you’re their friend or family, yes you care very much, and yes you want to help. But sometimes the best way to help isn’t letting them transfer all their problems and hurts on to you. Let them know you’d like to help where you can, but make sure you’re not doing that at the cost of your own mental health. Offer to go along to a psychologist appointment if they feel like they need the support, or catch up for a weekly coffee and chat, but don’t cancel your plans day after day to be checking up on them. Encourage them to find solutions that will work for them rather than trying to do it all for them.
How to answer
This is hard to write, because it’s very personal and individual. And personally, I hate being asked. I’ve been conditioned to shut up and put up, display the shiny, happy veneer to the outside world and deal with the hurt myself. But the older I get, the more I realise I can’t keep it up forever.
1. Put yourself in their shoes: If anything, depression makes you even more sensitive to other people’s hurts. A lot of people struggling with depression (myself included) try extra hard to make sure everyone else is doing OK as a way of deflecting our own problems. If you saw a friend who seemed down and out, you’d ask them too, so don’t get your back up when someone asks you – it means you’re loved!
2. Don’t get defensive: Assuming they’re coming from a place of understanding and love, they’re not accusing you of anything; they’re worried about you. They’re ready to listen, so you don’t need to defend how and what you’re feeling. Drop your guard and let them see you, not your mask.
3. Be open to help: It can be hard enough opening up to someone you know and love; it’s a whole different ball game opening up to a stranger. But you can’t use your loved one as a crutch. Asking if you’re OK is a way for them to make you realise that you’re actually not OK, and for you to become OK is probably going to take a bit of work on your part. Be open to outside help, because it’s unfair to expect your loved one to solve all your problems for you.
4. Be honest: If you’re not OK, say so. If someone cares enough about you to actually ask, the least you can do is be honest. They wouldn’t be asking if they couldn’t handle it, so tell them what’s going on as honestly and openly as you can. You’d be surprised how good it feels to get all the shit that’s been building up out of your head and into words. It can also help put things into perspective and give you a new lease on your problems, hearing them out loud instead of having them swim around in your head.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: If they care about you, one of the first things they’re going to do is tell you to let them know what they can do to help. You don’t offer your best friend help if you don’t mean it, so if having someone bring their extra dinner left overs to work for your lunch so you don’t have to cook, or picking up your kids from school, or just catching up for an hour over a cup of tea is going to really help you, let them know! Even your closest friends aren’t mind readers; if they don’t know what you’re going through, how can you expect them to know what they can do to help??
And lastly, SAY THANK YOU!!! Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone care enough to ask if they’re OK. If someone asks you, thank them.
Tomorrow, let’s all put a bit of love out there and start the conversation, because you never know whose life you might be saving – all you need to ask is “R U OK?”
If you’re not OK, please consider seeking help from:
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
SANE – 1800 18 7263
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467