How to Meaningfully Ask Someone, “Are You Okay?" - And Not Just on RUOK Day - Hope 103.2

How to Meaningfully Ask Someone, “Are You Okay?” – And Not Just on RUOK Day

RUOK Day has reduced the stigma around mental health issues. But has it really helped us look out for one another in a meaningful, effective way?

Listen: Rachel Clements talks to Sam and Duncan

By Clare BruceWednesday 11 Sep 2019Hope BreakfastHealth and WellbeingReading Time: 6 minutes

There’s no doubt that RUOK Day – the mental health awareness and suicide prevention campaign – has helped reduce the stigma around issues like depression and anxiety.

But has it helped us look out for one another in a meaningful, effective way?

If all we ever do is throw the #RUOK hashtag into a social media post, or send out an effortless “RUOK” text on a designated mental health awareness day, with no real followup—then we probably haven’t helped anyone much.

Rachel Clements from the Centre for Corporate Health works in the area of mental health in the workplace. Talking to Hope Breakfast about RUOK Day, she suggested some simple ways to really ask after someone’s welfare, year-round – and in a way that makes a real difference.

Look for the Warning Signs and Initiate a Conversation

The first step is to keep an eye out for our friends, family members, and workmates that we see regularly – and notice if they’re not acting like themselves.

“When people are not travelling so well, one of the early warning signs is that they tend to disconnect, pull away, keep away from people, avoid people,” Rachel said. “Just being able to ask that question, ‘are you OK?’, actually inspires and encourages connectedness.”

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Be the first person to ask – don’t wait for them to talk to you.

“Initiating that contact is really important,” Rachel said. “A ‘watch and wait’ approach does not work in this space of mental health. In that time someone can shift from the early stages of a little unwell to quite unwell – because we know that disconnection often makes people feel worse.”

Just Asking the Question Shows You Care

Two workmates talking While some people may feel shy of asking a friend how they’re going, Rachel says showing care is an important step – even if you don’t feel you’re great at having a conversation about mental health.

“We know that connection is a key to people staying well,” she said. “So if people feel as if they are connected in relationships and people care about them, being able to step into a meaningful conversation is really important – and can potentially change the direction of someone’s life.”

It’s Not ‘Prying’ to Ask Someone If They’re Okay

Rachel said that asking someone about their welfare is not being ‘nosy’ or interfering; it’s a sign of genuine care.

“Our old mindset was that often people feel they might be prying or invading someone’s personal space,” she said. “Around 10 or 15 years ago when I used to go into workplaces people would say ‘I know Joe over there is not travelling well, but it’s none of my business’.”

Being “respectfully curious” is the best approach.

She believes we have an ethical obligation to check in with each other if something seems amiss. Being “respectfully curious” is the best approach.

“If I observe someone’s not travelling well, it is my responsibility to lean in and have that conversation, or pass that onto someone else,” Rachel said. “And if someone does not want to respond – if it is personal and they don’t feel comfortable, then they won’t talk. But that’s okay, because the important thing they take away is that ‘you were concerned about me, you cared and you were here to support me’.”

What If I’m Not the Right Person to Ask?

Two workmates talking If it’s your employer, manager, or someone who you’re not closely connected to that seems unwell, you may feel awkward about asking how they’re going. In this case, the best step is to pass the ball to someone more appropriate.

“I would always suggest picking somebody who you think would be better for having that conversation, whether that’s another manager, or another colleague,” Rachel suggested.

“And don’t assume they’ve done it just because you’ve passed it on. You’ve actually got to circle back in and ask if they had that conversation.”

Listen and Encourage Action

If you’ve asked someone how they are going, and they really are struggling, then take the time to listen – and encourage them to take positive steps.

You might encourage them to call their doctor or arrange counselling, to talk to a family member or someone they are close to, to make sure they’re not spending a weekend on their own, or to take other positive steps towards better health.

By encouraging action you will show them that you genuinely care, and may prompt them to do something positive that they’d been putting off.

Check in Later to See If Things Have Improved

Teen boy and father

Following up is the part of the “RUOK” process that is often neglected. But it might just help a reluctant, struggling person to make a phone call that puts them on the road to recovery.

“The research on mental health recovery shows that what inspires recovery, is having your support crew there – whether that’s one person or a few people. It’s about initiating the followup. Someone might go, ‘I never made that call’, and you can then go, ‘let’s make that call right now’.

Remember, you don’t have to have the answers, become a qualified counsellor, or try to “fix” someone’s mental health issues.

“Help them on the journey. It’s the ability in the followup to just walk shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody.”

Remember, you don’t have to have the answers, become a qualified counsellor, or try to “fix” someone’s mental health issues. In fact you don’t even have to know the “right” words to say.

Just having the courage to ask, listen, and check in occasionally with a person until you feel they’re back on track, can make a world of difference.

Tips from the RUOK Team

Two workmates talking

There is a great guide to “How to Ask” the RUOK question, on the RUOK website. Tips include:

  • Choose somewhere relatively private and comfortable to chat – not at the staff coffee machine during rush hour, for example!
  • Pick a time when you and your friend or colleague will have time to talk properly.
  • Be relaxed, friendly and concerned in your approach.
  • Help your friend open up with questions like “How are you going?” or “What’s been happening?”
  • Mention specific concerns, like “You seem quiet lately. Are you doing alright?”
  • Push back gently if someone brushes off your concern, by saying you’re still concerned and that you care.
  • Accept if they don’t want to talk. Your question alone can make a real difference, even if someone doesn’t want to chat.
  • Don’t confront, but leave the door open by saying “Please call me if you ever want to chat” or “Is there someone else you’d rather talk to?”
  • If they need time to think, sit patiently with the silence.
  • Take their response seriously and don’t interrupt or rush the conversation.

Follow up with something like, “I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to know how you’ve been going since we last chatted.

  • Encourage them to explain further, with phrases like, “How are you feeling about that?” or “How long have you felt that way?”
  • Show you’ve listened by repeating back what they said (in your own words) and ask if you’ve understood properly.
  • Ask questions like, “What have you done in the past to manage similar situations?” / “How would you like me to support you?”/ “What’s something relaxing or enjoyable you could do for yourself right now?”
  • Offer suggestions such as, “When I was going through a difficult time, I tried this… You might find it useful too.”
  • If they’ve been feeling really down for more than 2 weeks, encourage them to see a health professional. Offer to help find the right person if appropriate.
  • Be positive about the role of professionals in tough times.
  • Put a reminder in your phone or diary to call them in a couple of weeks – or, if they’re really struggling, in a couple of days.
  • Follow up with something like, “I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to know how you’ve been going since we last chatted.”
  • Ask if they’ve found a better way to manage the situation. If they haven’t done anything, don’t judge them. They might just need someone to listen.
  • Stay in touch; be there for them. Genuine care can make a real difference.
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