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3 Reasons ‘R U OK?’ Day Only Works in Theory

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

R U OK? Day has been and gone. It’s a day in Australia that promotes the idea that simply asking someone “are you OK?” can help prevent suicide and promote awareness about mental health. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea. We need to be able to identify potential mental health crises more efficiently and confidently as the rates of mental illness continue to rise. Unfortunately, there are three things about R U OK? Day that really eat away at me — things I don’t think we really want to address.

1. People lie.

People living with a mental illness lie about their current state all the time; they might say they are OK when, really, they are struggling. Granted, this year’s theme was “Trust Your Gut” — to trust your instincts about someone and their mental health. But people can be convincing, and people can be persuaded easily. R U OK? Day only really works if the person you are talking to is ready, and is at that stage where they can say “no, I’m not OK” in comparison to the “yeah, I’m fine” or brushing off their struggles as minor and easily handled.

For the idea this day is promoting to work, the person you are asking needs to trust you and be in that space where they’ve identified there is a problem and they need help. Men, in particular, may be less likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness because they are conditioned to believe they do not need to seek help, that they just need to “man up” and deal with it. Because of this, R U OK? is less likely to work on these individuals. But even if it does, and they do answer “no,” what then?

2. What do you say after asking if they are OK, and they say no?

I have been suicidal many times during my life. I’m suicidal now.

If someone was to ask me if I was OK, I would hopefully be brave enough to be blunt and honest and answer “no.” Unfortunately, I feel like I am a coward and 9 out of 10 times would say I’m fine because of the way people respond to the answer “no, I’m not OK.”

R U OK? Day has done wonderful work promoting the idea of checking in on your mates and making sure to be there if you can. What they haven’t done is provide you with a list of dos and don’ts after you receive your answer. None of us ask our friends if they are OK with the desired outcome is them saying “no.” We want them to be honest, but we also want the answer to be “yes, I’m fine.” So, when the answer is “no,” we tend not to know what to do or say.

Speaking from my experience, when I was first open and honest about being suicidal, friends told me I wasn’t; family said I was selfish, that I needed to think about others because what I wanted to do would hurt everyone around me, or if I truly was suicidal I’d be dead by now. That didn’t change the way I felt or change my plans; it just shut me up. The issue with R U OK? Day is not preparing people in how to respond when someone asks unless you delve into their website which, let’s face it, not a lot of people will do. People need to be ready with how to respond to someone admitting they are not well. One way to do this is to normalize it in our media, in our TV shows and other works of fiction.

There is a scene in “Broadchurch” that I’ve seen in GIF form many times, where Jodie Whitaker’s character is telling another character that getting up, showering, going out to meet her for coffee etc. are no small tasks when you’re depressed, and that they are something to be proud of completing when you are. Encouragement like that is something that some people living with mental illness need, and we need to normalize the idea of praising the small things and offering to help with things that may seem easy to you but seem impossible to your friends.

Most importantly, we need to start normalizing the fact that suicide usually isn’t something that just happens. There is usually a build-up, a lead-in, and it’s not always dramatic. Sometimes it’s quiet, without the screams and the shouts. We need to normalize having a conversation before it gets to that point, being able to sit down and calmly say you are worried about them and asking if they need to talk to someone. That, as well as normalizing what it is like once you’ve entered the mental health system.

3. The mental health system is not well-run under the strain it’s currently in.

I have been in the Australian mental health system since I was 8. I’ve been given multiple diagnoses. I’ve seen many different mental health professionals. As of now, I’m struggling to get into any mental health service, including the crisis assessment and treatment team (CATT) services that are provided locally, even though I’m marked down as severe. All treatments I have tried have worked in the short-term but not the long term, and it currently feels like the mental health system in Australia is struggling under the strain of chronic, severe mental illnesses.

I read an article about how sometimes it feels like we are just being filtered through the psychiatric ward and pushed out when they need a new bed, only to boomerang back. The issue with R U OK? Day is that there is a sudden influx of people calling crisis lines and asking for help to a system that is already buckling under the pressure of those already in the system. Personally, I’ve waited on the phone to crisis lines for over an hour during times of crisis, the entire time preparing for my own suicide and, on a few occasions, actually going through with my plans whilst still on hold. People should definitely get help if they can — I’m not denying that. The issue is, there isn’t enough funding or interest in mental health in Australia until very recently. Before we promote the idea of having amateurs talking to their friends about their mental health, we need to focus on building up the professional side of this equation, making sure there is enough for everyone so that people aren’t being turned away due to the fact that numbers are too high. I have been refused to multiple government services because of this fact, to the point where I’ve given up looking for a new mental health team. I know many other people with the same story.

People seeking help aren’t receiving it, so rather than focusing on just getting people to admit they need professional help, we also need to focus on getting the system running effectively. Lives are at stake here, and we don’t want to have someone who is already in a state close to suicide actually go through with their plans because the system bounced them back again and again, all because there was no room for them. That’s not acceptable, and it’s not something we as a community feel comfortable talking about. So, as well as asking your mates if they are OK, maybe it’s also time to start asking ourselves if the way society is treating people living with mental illness at a professional level is also OK, because perhaps it is also time for a change in that setting too.

Photo by Alexandre Croussette on Unsplash

Originally published: October 7, 2019
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