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When U R not OK

R U OK? Day is an annual reminder to ask people honestly, “are you okay?” It starts with the intention to offer real, community support and the hope that increasing those connections will help prevent suicide. WIRE staffer Lou Franklin explores what you should do when someone opens up and admits that no, they’re not really okay at all.

At WIRE we ask questions like “are you okay?” every weekday, on our telephone support line, in our walk in centre, during our online support and in our training programs. We ask these questions so that we can start a conversation and support the person that we’re talking to, through a process of uncovering their needs, strengths, and resources. Through this process, we hope to work with the people who contact us to find resources and decide for themselves, “what next?”.

For our workers, the confidence to do this comes from a thorough process of training, supervision, support, and a model that guides this work. Hopefully we can share some of what we’ve learned so that you can navigate conversations on R U OK? day (and beyond) safely, and confidently.

Prepare

Before asking “are you okay?” you need to be ready for what the other person might say and what you’re willing to offer. Asking someone “are you okay?” without being ready to hear the answer they might give could put both of you at risk. You might hear:

  • “Yeah, I’m great thanks!”
  • “I’m having a hard time at work”
  • “To be really honest, I want to end my life.”

It is important that no matter how someone replies to your question, they are met with love and support.

The love and support that you’re able to provide might vary greatly depending on what is going on for the person and your relationship with them. This is important and good; we can’t be all things to all people and this makes it important to have a think about what you can offer someone. It could include:

Emotional support

  • a regular check in
  • a supportive conversation
  • accompanying someone to a meeting

Practical support

  • babysitting
  • house cleaning or cooking
  • a lift to an appointment

Connection to other supports

  • connecting them to a loved one
  • providing numbers to support services
  • calling a support service on their behalf for help

It’s important for you to think about how much time you can genuinely offer the person. It could be an hour, half a day or 20 minutes, once per week for three weeks.

You don’t have to think about every possible situation but it’s good to have an idea of what will work for you. Also be prepared that your offers of support might be rejected. It is important to respect people’s agency, unless someone’s safety is at risk (for example by making threats of violence against one’s self or others, in which case, calling 000 may be necessary)

What to say

“Are you okay?” is an easy enough starting place, but where do you go from there?

Once the person you’re talking to has replied, if you aren’t equipped to talk about their issue, you could be honest and say, “That sounds really hard. Thank you for sharing that with me but I don’t know how to help you with that,” and maybe you can offer an alternative, with a sentence like, “is there someone I can connect you with who can?”

If you’re willing to open up the conversation, a simple phrase you could use is, “do you want to tell me more about that?”

In continuing the conversation, it can be supportive use some of the following:

  • “That sounds difficult/scary/confusing”
  • “It sounds like you’re worried because…”
  • “It was brave to share that with me…”

Once you feel like you’ve heard what is going on for the person you’re talking to, it can be helpful to describe what you have understood.

“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like…” and check, “Is that right?”

What next?

The next step is finding out what the person needs and how to help them to get that. This doesn’t mean that you have to save the day for them, your job here is to match up the support that you can provide with what they need as one small step of their process.

You could try the following phrases:

  • “Do you know what would help?”
  • “Do you know how to get what you need?”
  • “What have you already tried?”

Sometimes people don’t know what is available to them or what will help. This can be frustrating for them and difficult for you, a gentle way to offer your ideas could be, “Would you like to hear some ideas that I’ve had?”

Finally, when you’ve talked, together, about what might help, it’s time to offer support. You can frame this in the following ways:

  • “If you want, I can …”
  • “I don’t know how to help you with this, but do you think you would try calling (WIRE/Lifeline/Suicide call back service/switchboard/1800 RESPECT)?”

Self-care

Finally, supporting people who are facing difficult things in their lives is hard. It is important to think about ways that you can support yourself: it might be calling one of the services above to debrief, doing training to learn skills in suicide response or support work, telling a friend that you aren’t okay, journaling, or whatever you already do to care for yourself.

WIRE wishes you a safe “R U OK?” day, and if you need to tell someone that you aren’t okay or you’ve just been supporting someone and you need to talk about it, you can call WIRE on 1300 134 130 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Lou Franklin is a WIRE staff member currently working on the Senior Women’s Financial Capability Project. Prior to that, they were a support worker in WIRE’s walk-in centre and telephone support volunteer for a number of years.  They are mostly OK, but prefer that you ask things like that via text, especially when they’re parenting.

The image was taken by Zackary Drucker and is from The Gender Spectrum Collection

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