*trigger warning – this post discusses suicide*

Today is/was R U OK Day – a day where you are encourage to approach people (friends/family/strangers?) and ask them if they are OK.  From the R U OK website:

Thursday 7 October, 2010 is R U OK?Day. A national day of action that aims to prevent suicide by encouraging Australians to connect with someone they care about and help stop little problems turning into big ones.

On that day we want everyone across the country, from all backgrounds and walks of life, to ask family, friends and colleagues: “Are you OK?”.

Because staying connected with others is crucial to our general health and wellbeing. Feelings of isolation and being alone are major contributing factors to depression and social issues that can ultimately result in suicide. Regular, meaningful conversations can protect those we know and love.

It’s so simple but in the time it takes to have a coffee, you can start a conversation that could change a life.

I get the whole raising awareness thing, but right now this doesn’t really work for me.  If I had waited until today to ask my friend who attempted suicide a couple of weeks ago, whether or not she was ok, she may not have lived that long.  The analogy for me is something like “Safe Sex” day where everyone practices safe sex and forgets about it for the other 364 days of the year (365 on leap years).  That would be a bad thing, and having one day singled out in a year where you’re told (not encouraged) to ask someone you care about if they are OK, versus the rest of the year, is not exactly helpful.

I think I’d be less … something… about this if they more clearly stated that this was an awareness exercise and that this was to raise awareness of the tools available to those who want to ask if someone is ok, and to provide information to those who need it.  Mainly stating that this is the day you should ask someone if they are ok, misses all the other days when they may not be.

It also assumes that everyone has the spoons to ask someone else if they are ok, or are ok enough themselves to ask someone else.  I have had days where I did not have the spoons to ask someone if they were ok because being prepared to listen and engage with that person enough for answer required energy I did not have.  Asking if someone is OK is not a short conversation, and can go beyond the one coffee suggested above.  It requires focus, probing and understanding feedback, and a willingness to engage – and as well the understanding that whoever you’ve approached may not be willing to open up to you and that isn’t something you should take personally.

The R U OK website also has a page providing suggestions and advice on how to start an R U OK conversation.  This page is full of good information except for one bit which I found somewhat problematic.  The page rightly tells you not to offer advice, “Avoid telling someone what to do: it is important to listen and try to help the other person work out what is best for them“.  But then delves immediately into:

Be encouraging

Encourage physical health. Maintaining regular exercise, a nutritious diet and getting regular sleep helps people to cope in tough times

Encourage the person to seek professional help from their family doctor, a support service or counsellor, or a mental health worker

Encourage self-care. Sometimes people need to be encouraged to do more to look after their own needs during a difficult time

So on one hand, don’t give advice, but on the other encourage them to look after themselves more, seek help and maintain their physical health – things the person you are meant to be listening to may not be able to actually do for a myriad of reasons, or who may be doing all or some of them and doesn’t need you to comment on.

When I found out from my friend about her attempted suicide, I hugged her, took her somewhere quiet and listened to her.  I asked if she’d like to come to my place for a while, if she needed to, again being ok with her saying no, because this was not about me – it was about what she needed.

The fact that the R U OK website also lists groups you can speak to if you need help now, is also a great resource.

In the end the R U OK idea is good, but for me to be satisfied with it, it needs more tweaking.  More conversation up front about how this should happen every day and not just once a year.  More tools for people who’ve never had conversations like this.  More information about what constitutes being helpful, how to provide feedback during the conversation so that whoever is being listened to knows that they are being heard, what to do if things get out of hand, how to check up on someone again later and how to debrief with someone afterward so that you too are OK.

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