Having the Conversation - Are You OK?

On 8 September 2022, our nation takes action to remind Australians that every day is the day to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ On this day, we practice reaching out to others who may be struggling with life’s challenges, and offering them our comfort, support, and a listening ear. Through these meaningful conversations, it is hoped that all Australians experience a deeper connection to each other and take the step of checking in more often.  

Sometimes it can be hard to ask the question, ‘Are you OK?’ Sometimes, we worry that if we ask the question, it may lead to disclosures and we will not know what to do, or how to handle the situation. Sometimes we may feel helpless as we don’t know how to fix the problem for the other person. Sometimes, we feel the need to rescue them from painful feelings and experiences. Sometimes we worry that checking in will result in the person being reminded of painful and upsetting experiences and they may cry or become overwhelmed. It takes courage to ask another, ‘Are you OK?’ It means that you may have to sit in the discomfort of another person’s pain and vulnerability, often without being able to fix it. But the more we practice asking others, ‘Are you OK?’ the better we get at it. We all benefit from asking others, ‘Are you OK?’ because we come to realise that when others share their struggles, it gives us permission to also share ours. We learn that everyone struggles and that everyone needs support and comfort to manage adversity.  

Although there is no right or wrong way to check in with others, and handle what they may say, there are certainly better or worse ways to do it. Try to pick the right timing and location to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ Avoid asking when other people are around, or if the person is highly distracted by pressing responsibilities and non-negotiable timelines e.g., dropping kids to school, getting to work on time. In these circumstances, they are most likely to just smile and say they are fine so they can avoid embarrassment or get on with meeting important deadlines.  Make sure you are also in a calm mental space and have the time to respond if they disclose that they are going through tricky times. For boys, it is sometimes best to have the conversation while you are doing a task, or driving in the car, in which you are sitting or standing side by side, rather than opposite each other.  

To start the conversation, ask a basic question such as ‘We haven’t caught up for a while and I am wondering how are doing these days?’ Alternatively, you might share some recent observations that they seem quiet lately, or aren’t going out as much, or have stopped going to the gym, or grooming themselves in typical ways. Then enquire if everything is OK. You might decide to keep it safe and simply take turns to share a recent time when you were not doing so well and how you got through it. At the very least, it will normalise struggle for both of you and will give you the chance to share problem-solving ideas. You can then make an agreement for how you will be there for each other next time life throws a few curly challenges your way.  

If someone discloses that they are not OK, avoid problem solving and simply listen so they feel seen and heard. Remember, they are not needing a solution, but are needing connection, comfort and understanding. Problem solving can come later. Try these 3 steps:  

  1. Find a way to agree with some part of what they share. For example, if they say, ‘life is just too hard and I’m so tired of constantly getting knocked down!’ try saying, ‘I agree with you that life seems to be getting more and more challenging and I so wish it didn’t have to be this difficult. Tell me more about what’s going on for you?’ Sometimes, we want to disagree with their comments by telling them that lots of good things are happening in their life, or that things aren’t so bad compared to other people who have it so much worse. Although these comments come from a place of good intention, these methods typically work poorly and usually lead to the person feeling worse about themselves, and ultimately, more isolated and misunderstood. It goes without saying that if someone discloses that they are thinking about taking their life, it is important to NOT agree with them. Instead, try saying, ‘I’m so pleased you told what you are thinking and feeling, and it saddens me that you currently believe suicide might be the only viable option to get you through your problems.’ Then reassure them that you want to learn more about what they are going through and how you want to help them connect with a mental health professional to explore other problem-solving options.  
  1. When you do step one effectively, the person is likely to tell you more about the issue. Listen closely to what is said, paying particular attention to their thoughts and feelings.  After listening intently, simply reflect what they said to show you have listened. For example, if your child says:

    ‘I really miss dad and I can’t stop thinking about him. I’m so mad at him for leaving and I’m so mad that you didn’t love each other anymore!’  

    Respond with an empathic statement and curiosity to learn more:  

    ‘It breaks my heart to see you so upset. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like for you. I’m so glad you told me that you are feeling mad about what happened and how much you miss dad. I’m not sure if I completely understand everything that you are thinking and feeling but is sounds like you are also sad and lonely without him. Is that how you feel? I’m curious to learn more so I can help you get through this upsetting time. Please help me to understand what else you might be thinking and feeling?’
  1. Share how you are feeling using ‘I’ statements and end with very affirming, validating, and caring comments. Sometimes, you may like to share a personal disclosure about similar experiences you have had. Keep it brief and only do so, if it will help build a deeper connection and level of understanding. Try the following:  

    'I’m so grateful you have told me what you are going through. I am so concerned about you and feel really upset to hear how much this situation is hurting you. I have been through something similar, and although we are different people, much of your pain resonates with me. I got through it, and I would like to help you in any way you need. Please know I care so much for you. You mean the world to me and I am here for you every step of the way. '

Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ It is a courageous and vulnerable act as you may find yourself stepping into the unknown of how the conversation may unfold but that will be far easier to handle than if someone you love and care for tries to cope with their struggles in ways that could be harmful and devastating.  

If you need support in a crisis or if your safety is at risk, you can contact the following:  

  • ACT (Acute Care Team) 24/7: 1300 64 2255  
  • Lifeline 24/7: 13 11 14  
  • Call 000 to request an ambulance or present to the Emergency Department of the Hospital.  

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