“Are you okay?” is a simple question to ask. It’s probably one that we ask often to those around us; a quick way to check in with family, friends, work colleagues, and everything in between.
Many people see it as a semi-tedious call-and-response exercise. Like any of the other mundane questions we answer in the day-to-day, it’s a question we always have an answer for.
We’ll ask about someone’s day without really knowing if we care or not, it’s an automatic response to being asked about our own. In a similar way, most will answer the question of “Are you okay?” with “Yeah I’m fine”, with the occasional slight shrug added for good measure.
Both situations have us caught in a habit where we will favour an automatic response over something genuine. We’ve all told people we’re ok despite our current mental state without really thinking about it.
In fact, R U OK? Day research found that around two in five people (38%) who said they were okay weren’t actually okay.
Why do we respond like this and evade disclosing our actual well-being? Well, it all comes back to our comfort level with difficult conversations.
Being ‘here to hear’ after asking R U OK?
To put it simply, “Are you okay?” is an easy question to ask, but a difficult conversation to embark on. It has the potential to lead to an honest interaction and painful conversation, so it’s a question that tends to not be asked when it matters the most.
This year’s R U OK? Day takes place on the 14th of September 2023, and the slogan is a simple yet powerful message: “I’m here to hear.”
It’s a message that reminds us of the purpose of checking in with those you care about while also reassuring those who are struggling of the intentions of their friends and family.
With this information in mind, it’s clear that checking up on someone isn’t just about asking R U OK? but doing so in the correct way with the right goals in mind.
Make sure you’ve got the right mindset
You are engaging in a conversation not with the goal of fixing their mental health, but to hear, understand, and empathise with them. Creating a safe space for the person to speak their mind and taking the time to listen rather than throwing solutions at them can make all the difference.
Time, place, and comfort are a huge deal
Try and have the conversation in a place or surrounding a topic that you and the person bond over and/or they find comfort in. The familiarity will help ease the tension and can relax the person so that they feel more trusting and comfortable to share their situation earnestly.
If you’re not sure about where they’d prefer to have a sensitive discussion, then go ahead and ask them. Even if they don’t have a place in mind, they’ll appreciate the gesture.
Don’t rush it
Make sure that you have also set enough time aside for a long conversation so that the person doesn’t feel any pressure to rush their process.
You want to be able to calm them honestly and authentically by telling them that they can “take as much time as they need” to unpack things.
Understand what the question could lead to
Have some follow-up questions prepared for how the person answers. This shows that you’re interested in helping them while still respecting their boundaries.
- How has this week been for you?
- I’m ready to listen if you’re ready to talk about it.
- I’ve noticed a few changes in what you’ve been doing lately. Are you sure you’re alright?
- How did the [event, project, meeting] go?
- Have you gotten a chance to do any [person’s hobby] recently?
You’re here to hear
Most important of all, show the person that their thoughts and/or feelings have been heard. Take a moment before embarking on a conversation to consider how you might do this. You want to use the time to connect to the person with understanding and empathy.
For example, make sure to reassure them that it’s a good thing they’ve shared their feelings, and that you’re happy that you know about what they’re going through.
You don’t need to necessarily offer advice or solutions. You just need to validate that what they’re feeling is real and challenging.
You mightn’t understand what they’re experiencing right now, but you understand that it is big and hard. At the moment, it might be hard to see the other end of the tunnel, but you will sit with them as they wade through these dark days until the light emerges.
For example: “I can’t even begin to comprehend what you’re experiencing right now. But I understand that you are feeling lost and isolated and don’t know where to go next. And that’s okay. Would you like to talk about that more?”
See it through
Depending on how the conversation goes, take the necessary steps to follow up with the person and ensure they’re getting the relevant help they need. Reassure the person that they have people that care about them, and they can always reach out to you in the future.
Life is full of twists and turns, and there will be no shortage of moments when we won’t be okay. And your approach when asking that easy yet important question could mean the difference between a day-to-day call-and-response ritual, and a safe yet productive conversation. And a conversation could change a life.
Be here to hear this R U OK? Day.
National Support Lines
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 497
- Kids Helpline (up to 25 years): 1800 551 800
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Men’s Line Australia: 1300 789 978
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
- Q-life LGBTQIA+: 1800 184 527
- Lifeline Text (6pm-12am): 0477 131 114
- GriefLine: 1300 845 745