Asking R U OK? – How to do it and why it matters

  • 09 September 2019

This Thursday is R U OK Day – the perfect time to check in with the people in our lives and encourage important conversations about mental health.

R U OK Day is an Australia-wide campaign to encourage everyone to connect meaningfully with the people around them by asking one simple question – are you ok?

There is still a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health. Myths about illnesses like depression or anxiety being ‘selfish’ or ‘a sign of weakness’ make it extremely difficult for people struggling with those illnesses to ask for help.

Asking someone if they’re ok can be a game-changer – just by being there and caring enough to ask, you can make someone feel less alone and more able to seek help or support. R U OK? is an organisation that provides everyday Australians with the skills and confidence to start those conversations, and R U OK Day is an annual reminder to check in with the people around you – it could be a conversation that saves a life.

When to ask ‘R U OK’

If you’ve noticed a change in the behaviour of someone in your life, no matter how small, it’s probably time to ask R U OK? These are some common signs that someone might be struggling:

  • They’re withdrawn, reckless or moody.
  • They’re having trouble concentrating or switching off.
  • They’ve lost interest in their personal hygiene or appearance, or in things they used to love.
  • They’ve changed their sleep patterns or online activity.
  • They’re experiencing issues with their health, relationships, work or finances.

Preparing to ask ‘R U OK’

It’s important to make sure that you’re ok yourself before you try to be there for others. Here are some things to consider before you ask R U OK:

  • Am I ready: Am I in a good place? Am I willing to genuinely listen, with compassion and without judgement? Can I give this person and this conversation as much time as is required?
  • Have I prepared myself: Do I understand that the answer to ‘are you ok’ might be ‘no, I’m not’? Do I understand that I can’t ‘fix’ the problem, no matter how much I might want to, and that trying to do so probably won’t help? Do I accept that they might not be ready to have this conversation, or that they might not want to have it with me?
  • Have I chosen a good moment: Have I chosen a relatively private and comfortable place to have this conversation? Have I chosen a time that is good for them? Have I made sure that we both have enough time to chat properly?

If you don’t think you’re ready or the right person to start the conversation, that’s ok! Try to think of someone else in their support network who might be able to help, or seek professional support (there is a list of resources at the end of this article).

How to ask ‘R U OK’, and what to do if the answer is ‘no’

It can be daunting to start a serious conversation with someone you’re worried about, but just the act of reaching out can make a huge difference to someone who’s struggling. Here is a four-step guide from R U OK? to help you navigate that conversation:

1. Ask:
  • Be relaxed, friendly and patient.
  • You could jump straight in with ‘R U OK?’, or you could ease them into it with open-ended questions: ‘How are you going?’ or ‘What’s been happening in your life?’
  • Show your concern by mentioning specific things that you’ve noticed: ‘You seem less chatty than usual lately’ or ‘You’re not your usual self – is there something going on?’
  • If they don’t want to talk, don’t push them – remind them that you care about them, you’re worried about them, and you’re there for them: ‘Please give me a call if you ever want to chat’ or ‘Is there someone else you’d prefer to talk to about this?’
2. Listen:
  • Listen to them with curiosity, compassion and an open mind.
  • Be patient. Let them take as long as they need to think or speak, and don’t interrupt or rush them.
  • Don’t be judgemental or dismissive, but acknowledge and validate their concerns: ‘That sounds really tough’ or ‘Your feelings are understandable given what you’re going through.’
  • Encourage them to explain: ‘How long have you felt that way?’ or ‘How did you feel about that?’
  • Repeat what they’ve told you in your own words, and ask if you’ve understood them properly.
3. Encourage action:
  • Offer your support: ‘How can I help?’ or ‘What’s something I can do for you or with you that might help take the pressure off?’
  • Suggest something they’ve enjoyed in the past: ‘What’s something you’ve found helpful or relaxing in the past? Making time for that can really make a difference.’
  • Encourage them to consider seeing a mental health professional, especially if they’ve been feeling down for more than two weeks: ‘Have you thought about seeing a professional?’ or ‘It might be helpful to speak to someone who can support you; I’m happy to help you find the right person.’
  • If you are worried they might be suicidal, contact Lifeline (13 11 14) for crisis support or call 000 immediately if someone’s life is in danger.
4. Check in:
  • Put a reminder in your diary to call them after a couple of weeks, or sooner if they’re really struggling: ‘I’ve been thinking about you and wanted to see how you were going.’
  • Ask them if they’ve changed what they’re doing or how they’re managing the situation, but don’t criticise or judge if they haven’t.
  • Keep making time to check in and be there for them – genuine care and concern can make all the difference.

Where to go for help

For urgent assistance and crisis support:
  • Emergency Services (24/7)

Ambulance, Police and Fire Brigade

Call 000

  • Lifeline (24/7)

Crisis support and suicide prevention services via phone or online chat

Call 13 11 14

  • Suicide Call Back Service (24/7)

Professional counselling for people affected by suicide via phone or online chat

Call 1300 659 467

  • Kids Helpline (24/7)

Confidential and private counselling for children and young people aged 5 to 25

Call 1800 55 1800

For non-urgent assistance:
  • Beyond Blue Support Service (24/7)

Information and referral to relevant services for depression, anxiety and similar matters

Call 1300 22 46 36

  • SANE Australia (weekdays 10am-10pm AEST)

Chat with mental health professionals via phone, email or online chat

Call 1800 187 263