It’s a seemingly simple question, RUOK? But before we go asking our friends, family or colleagues, it’s important to understand that being OK (and indeed, not being OK) is actually more complex than the question would imply.
What does it mean to be OK?
Most mental health professionals would agree that the concept of being ‘OK’ could be defined as an emotional state whereby you are coping with your current circumstances in a healthy way. In life, we all have tough days, weeks, months and even years. But whether or not we are coping well depends not only on the severity of the issue we might be facing, but also our ability to cope when things get hard. Oftentimes this is defined by our experiences in early childhood, and how we have adapted to deal with adverse events as adults.
So what does being OK look like? If anxiety causes you issues in your day to day life, have you sought help to cope with it, or gathered some tools that can lessen the severity of the symptoms when they attack? Are you refraining from using alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviours as a way of filling a deficit in your life? If in the hard times, are you managing to regulate yourself appropriately, utilise your support systems and avoid entering total despair? If you answered yes, chances are even if things are tough right now, you believe that you are valuable, loved and you are safe. You are OK.
However, ‘OK’ is a spectrum
It’s important to remember that what is OK for one person, might not be for another. For example, a job loss could feel catastrophic for some; resulting in a total perceived loss of identity, self-worth and self-esteem. For others, whilst it may result in some financial pressure to quickly find suitable employment, a job loss won’t impact the way in which they are able to esteem themselves.
When a significant adverse event like this occurs in the life of someone we care about, it is cause for us to ask if they are OK and coping with what’s happened. But often, we might be struggling for less obvious reasons. There needn’t have been a big, recent traumatic occurrence for us to be feeling down and without hope. In addition, in this era of smartphones, social media and filters, it can be particularly easy to miss the warning signs, and assume that is thriving based on what we see of them online.
How to ask someone, RUOK?
If we want to genuinely ask someone how they are doing, consider asking open-ended questions. Simply asking if they are OK, will more often than not garner a closed response, such as ‘yep, I’m fine’, and the conversation becomes difficult to continue. Instead aim for questions that will offer answers that contain additional information that may help you ascertain how someone’s really feeling. For example, ‘I’m feeling a little worried about you, as I’ve noticed you’ve missed a lot of school lately’ or ‘You seem a little down lately? How have things been since your breakup?’
Whilst it can be a daunting concept, if you are concerned about someone’s mental health and believe they might be thinking about taking their own life, another way to ask if they are OK is to be direct, for example, ‘have you been having thoughts about suicide?’. We often avoid asking this question, for a multitude of reasons. We’re uncomfortable about saying the words themselves, we’re worried about what we’ll say if the answer is yes, or we’re worried that we might ‘put ideas’ into someone’s head. These are common concerns and obstacles we face when we’re worried about someone, but remember, asking the question and showing someone you are there for them, might just save their life.
What to say if U R not OK?
When someone opens up to us about their mental state it can be difficult to know what to say. If you believe someone is imminently suicidal, call 000 immediately and stay with them until the operator instructs you that it is now OK to leave. This is usually when police or ambulance arrive to support the person.
Often, as friends or family members we jump into ‘fix it’ mode, and try to placate or prop our loved ones up to take away their pain. Unfortunately, whilst this is usually meant with the best intent, for the person who has opened up to you it may feel like you are minimising their experience. This might confirm the negative core beliefs they may have about themselves or their pain. They may feel a sense of inadequacy that they can’t seem to cope with something when others seemingly can.
For those who open up to you about having suicidal thoughts who aren’t in imminent danger to themselves, the best thing you can do initially is listen to the person and what they have to say about what has brought them to feeling this way. It’s important to validate their concerns so they know that the way they are feeling is rational and reasonable. It can be helpful to thank them for trusting you with this information, and show them your genuine concern. You can also encourage them to seek professional help and offer to source agencies, practitioners or other support services.
As friends and family, it is not our job to counsel our loved ones, but we can ask questions about whether or not they have the means or a plan to take their own life, and if they do, to help them develop some measures that can help keep them safe. This might include arranging (in collaboration with the person) so that they are not alone at home, researching support hotlines or providing a list of therapists who could provide professional support.
Making sure you are OK, when someone you love is not OK
Supporting someone who is suffering with mental illness, or suicidal thoughts is scary and overwhelming. Ensuring that you are supported yourself is crucial. If you have an Employee Assistance Program available to you through your workplace, this can be an excellent resource to take advantage of. Lifeline also offers low-cost, one-on-one counselling sessions that can help you navigate difficult times.
If you, or someone you care about is struggling, South Pacific Private can help. Take a free self-assessment or call our team on 1800 063 332 to see how our program might benefit you or your loved one. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or, if in immediate danger, call 000.