At one time or another, all of us will have a family member, friend or colleague that is struggling with their mental health. Unfortunately, many of those people who are struggling won’t feel comfortable enough to open up and have a meaningful conversation. Yet, it is these honest conversations that can ultimately encourage someone to seek help and the treatment they need.
Asking ‘RUOK?’, or ‘how are you?’ can result in many missed opportunities, simply because we are all trained to answer ‘yes’ or ‘fine’ or ‘good, thanks’. According to Diane Young, a trauma and addiction specialist at South Pacific Private, while it’s always helpful to ask, ‘are you okay?’, people who are struggling will most likely find it difficult to say ‘no’.
“Although RUOK? is a question asked with concern, it can allow the person to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It limits an open response,” she says. “RUOK? is a good place to start, but sometimes prefacing this question with something else might allow the answer to be more than a ‘yes' or ‘no’. “Ideally we want to allow the person to say a little more. Open-ended questions allow this.”
Here are some ways to start a conversation:
- You seem stressed and unhappy, how can I help?
- I’ve noticed you seem a little down. Are you ok?
- You don’t seem your usual self. Are you ok?
- I'm worried about you. Are you ok?
- How are you feeling about this/that?
- This is a tough situation… Are you ok?
Young says we should take special care to monitor not only what we say, but our tone and body language as well. “If we have asked and the person has replied that they’re not okay, be empathetic in your response, or simply say; ‘I’m sorry to hear that” or “I’m sorry that you’re experiencing that”. The first step should always be to listen and validate what the person is saying, not give advice.
If they are open to speaking about their feelings and experiences, be sure you acknowledge how difficult this moment must be and thank them for trusting you.
“If they’ve said, ‘yes, I’m okay’ and you suspect they are not, we could very gently and quietly let them know that you’ve noticed a change in their mood or behaviour and that you are concerned and you care about them. In no way to criticise them or get angry with them for not telling you,” she explains. “Long walks or long drives allow people to open up. It does with our children and teenagers (if they don’t have their electronic devices), adults will often speak up too.”
Being aware of the signs that someone is not okay is also important so we know what to look out for. “Often you will notice behaviour changes, small things like being emotionally distant, increased drinking, perhaps you will notice them being more reactionary, quick to anger or frustration,” she says. “They may not want to socialise or they’re often in their electronic world, working longer but increasingly irritated by that. In relationships there may be less intimacy and more time away from home. Notice the small things… it is often not what they say, but what they do.”
Young says that seeking professional help is the next step. “Often it is exceedingly difficult to reach out for help in the first instance. Let them know you are there for them,” she says.
You can encourage the person to take action by saying:
- How can I help and support you through this?
- What's a good first step we can take to help you?
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