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RU Really Ok? How to Help Someone Open Up About their Mental Health

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This year’s RU OK? Day is focused on asking RU really ok?

When we ask someone how they’re doing, they may answer honestly – they may say they’re struggling to cope, finding life hard or not feeling well within themselves.

But what if someone tells you they are ok, but you think they might not be? How can you tell?

You may notice they are not their usual self or have an instinct that something is a bit “off”. You may also be aware they’ve been undergoing hardships or personal circumstances that would naturally affect someone’s emotional wellbeing. Remember that 55% of communication is non-verbal. So, while someone might say they are ok, listen and look out for non-verbal cues, like their tone of voice, facial expression, or body language that may not be consistent with the content of the words. This could give you some clues that things may not be as they seem.

Why might people hold back from telling you they’re not ok?

There are a few common barriers. For example, they may:

  • Feel embarrassed, ashamed, or not be ready to tell someone yet
  • Want to share, but find it hard to put their experience into words
  • Not want to “burden” others and think they should be able to handle it themselves
  • Worry that others could change their opinions of them or see them as “weak”
  • Have experienced negative reactions before, like being criticised, dismissed or unsupported

It can be difficult when you wish someone was more forthcoming, so you can openly address the issue or offer help. However, understanding these barriers can remind us that it can be hard to open up and be vulnerable; to trust someone with personal things or admit that you’re not coping.

How to help someone open up about their mental health

There are things you can do to make it easier for someone to tell you they’re not really ok:

Make yourself available. During this pandemic – especially if you’re in lockdown or are separated by borders – it can be harder to gauge how someone is really doing, if you’re not physically seeing them as you normally would. This can make it harder to get a sense of how someone is really doing. Send them a text, call them or to get the best sense of how they are, use FaceTime or Zoom to connect. 

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Gently enquire a little more. Other ways of inviting someone to talk could include asking non-threatening, open-ended questions like “How’s your work/study situation going?”, “How are things at home?”, “How is COVID affecting you?”. You could also tell them you’ve noticed they’re not themselves. This allows an opening which they can use to elaborate if they wish to. 

Share about yourself. When you are real and honest, this creates an atmosphere within the relationship where it’s ok to talk about whatever you’re experiencing. You could share about day to day things in the here or now, or from the past. For people who struggle with thinking they are weak, this can be particularly helpful in normalising the breadth of emotional experiences we all have.

Reassure them. Even if they are not yet ready to talk, you could ask them what may be getting in the way or what their worries might be. Depending on their answer, they may find it helpful to hear that you won’t judge them, think differently of them or see them as being a burden. You can also remind them that it’s only human to find it hard to cope during difficult times.

Help them utilise other supports. If they don’t want to disclose to you, ask if there are other people in their life they would feel comfortable talking to, and encourage these conversations. You could also encourage them to consider seeking professional help such as seeing their GP or another mental health clinician, or do online courses for stress, anxiety or depression at THIS WAY UP.

Keep the door open. Explain that you’re there for them if they ever want to talk. Gain trust by following through with what you say you will do and avoid talking about other people or their problems in unhelpful ways that may deter them from opening up to you. Even if they choose to approach you only later down the track, you are still sowing valuable relational seeds now.

Keep the RUOK conversations going

While today is RUOK? Day, let’s keep checking in with others on any day of the year and keep the conversation going. These conversations require effort and can make us feel uneasy at times, but it could change a life.

If you’d like to point someone in the direction of more support, the best place to start is to see their GP, who can refer them to mental health clinicians if needed. They can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14, The Suicide Call back Service on 1300 659 467, or 000 if they are having a mental health emergency.

For more mental health support, take a look at our evidence-based Mental Health and Wellbeing courses 

Interested in learning more?

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