You’ve asked, are you OK? What should you do next?

 

Three words. That's all it could take to make a difference in someone's life and that's all it could take to save their life. Are you ok?

Today marks R U OK? day, an awareness campaign encouraging Australians to open the conversation about mental health. With Google Trends data showing that an increasing amount of Australians are searching for the campaign ahead of today, it's important to stay vigilant for others and keep mental health front of mind.

According to Lifeline, suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44.

Eight Australians die every day by suicide, more than double the road toll and 75 per cent of those who take their own life are male.

As the world lives through a global pandemic and people cope in different ways, it's even more vital than ever that we check in on family and mates.
If you're not quite sure how to approach the topic, or when you have, what do you do next, we ask an expert for guidance.

Rachel Clements, the director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health provides her expert tips
Rachel Clements, the director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health provides her expert tips

Rachel Clements, the principal psychologist and director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, answers our questions around mental health and well-being.

Her advice might just help you save a life.

 

Once you've asked someone, are you OK? What are the next steps I can take?

There is a 4-step Conversation Model, which you can follow, if you feel as if you need to check in with someone who may not be travelling so well.

 

Step 1: Ask R U OK?

● Be aware of the signs that concern you and explain succinctly why you want to catch up

● Adopt a relaxed and friendly approach and thank the person for meeting you

● Think about specific examples of issues, such as recent behavioural or performance changes

(e.g. "You seem to be really tired of late. Is everything okay?")

● Create the right environment in terms of timing (e.g. they have enough time) and location

(e.g. neutral, comfortable and private)

● Be clear on your message and approach from a position of concern and care

● If they don't want to open up, don't criticise them and avoid confrontation

 

Step 2: Listen without Judgement

● Manage your own emotional reactions, don't appear judgemental or overreact

● Allow them time to respond so you can better understand the reason for the observed

changes - don't rush them or interrupt

● Express empathy (e.g. "It sounds like you are juggling a number of challenges at the

moment," "Things must be really difficult for you right now".)

● If emotions arise, listen actively and use silence when appropriate

● Allow them to do most of the talking

● Show them you are actively listening by repeating back what they have said and ask if you

haven't understood something

 

 

A doctor consults with a male patient. Picture: iStock
A doctor consults with a male patient. Picture: iStock

Step 3: Encourage Action

● It's crucial you end the conversation with a clear action plan so both parties understand

what the outcome of the meeting will be

● Ask for their solutions to the problem first before offering any of your own solutions

● It's not your role to fix the problem, but to guide them toward a solution or further

assistance

● Agree on an action plan together and thank them for their time, honesty and co-operation

 

Step 4: Check In

● Set yourself a reminder to contact the person in a weeks if not sooner

● Review and monitor progress of any action plans and follow up regularly

● If the proposed solutions aren't working, you can assist again to think of other ways to

support. Stay in touch and be there for them.

 

I've asked if they are OK. How do I keep the conversation going?  

If someone tells you that they are not OK, or you suspect something deeper is going on, encourage them to open up by asking questions such as:

 

● "What's been happening?"

● "Have you been feeling this way for a while?"

● "I'm ready to listen if you want to talk."

● "What you're going through isn't easy, I'm glad we can talk about it."

 

Often the best support you can give, is being there to listen and allowing them to express what is troubling them.

This simple conversation can show a person that they are valued. You don't need

to have all the answers, but it is helpful to know what resources are available to you can

encourage action.

 

It’s key to open the conversation. One question could save someone’s life. Picture: iStock.
It’s key to open the conversation. One question could save someone’s life. Picture: iStock.

 

I've noticed a change in behaviour in my friend. When should I get concerned? 

There are various signs and symptoms to look out for that may indicate someone is having a hard time.

Everyone shows they are not tracking well in different ways, some more subtle and harder to

pick up on than others.

Generally however, they fall into four categories: physical, behaviours, thoughts and moods. The following are some warning signs to look out for which may indicate someone is not OK:

● Constantly tired, run down or feeling unwell

● Change in appetite or diet

● The use of drugs and alcohol to cope

● Absenteeism or excessive work hours

● Increase in breaks

● Sudden changes to work performance

● Irrational, negative or rigid thoughts

● Mood changes such as lacking confidence, angry, anxious or worried

 

Remember these are only a few indicators, and everyone is different. What you are looking for is a change in someone's regular behaviours, expressed thoughts, moods or physical appearance. If it is "out of character" it might be a good idea to check-in on them.

 

 

Woman holding her face in her hands. istock image
Woman holding her face in her hands. istock image

 

What if they say they don't think there's a problem or want help?   

If you ask "R U OK?" and the person responds saying they're fine, but your gut tells you otherwise. There are a few things that you can do.

● Try the double ask: "But how are you really?"

● Share specific examples: "It's just that I've noticed a few changes in what you've been

saying / doing lately. Are you coping OK?"

 

Sometimes a person may not be ready to express to you that they are not feeling OK, and that in itself is OK!

It is important not to criticise or confront them if they are not wanting to open up. Just by starting the conversation and showing them that you care, is a huge step. A person must feel

ready to open up and seek support. Accept and acknowledge their response, but ask them if it is OK for you to check back in after a couple of weeks as you are still concerned and want them to know that you are there as a support person.

 

Can mental health issues be genetic? 

Mental health concerns can be both a result of genetic factors, environmental factors and the

interaction between the two. If you have a blood relative who lives with a mental illness, such as a parent or sibling, you are more likely to develop a mental illness yourself if you have the same, specific genes.

Other important factors to consider when looking at the causes of mental illness include exposure to environmental factors before birth such as alcohol, environmental stressers,

drugs or toxins while in the room, and also your brain chemistry.

The neural networks in our brains carry signals through chemical neurotransmitters. When these neural networks are impaired, the function of the nerves can change, resulting in mental illness such as depression.

 

Homeless senior man sitting and begging alone in a subway tunnel. Picture: iStock
Homeless senior man sitting and begging alone in a subway tunnel. Picture: iStock

Why is mental health so important in the workplace?  

Mental health conditions present significant costs to organisations, with poor mental health having significant impacts on the workplace, including reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and presenteeism and lower employee satisfaction.

The relationship between mental health and the workplace is complex.

Many employers assume that an employee's mental health condition develops outside of the workplace, despite employees spending a significant proportion of their time at work.

There are some workplace factors which can contribute to the developing or worsening of a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

These being: organisational change, job strain, job dissatisfaction, leadership style and traumatic events.

It should also be noted that for many employees, work may be a protective factor against developing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.

A huge factor to creating mentally healthy workplaces falls across leadership.

Employees need to feel both physically and psychologically safe at work, and know that there is someone in their corner that they can trust and can also act.

It is so important for leaders, colleagues and HR to check in with their team and have conversations to see how they are going.

This might be having a virtual chat over a coffee, checking-in on how their weekend was or following up on how their birthday dinner went.

 

 

These small and mistakenly insignificant conversations make a big difference in fostering a culture of psychological safety and trust.

They also make you aware of when an individual's behaviour may shift during times of stress as the more you get to know the actual person, the more you notice these subtle changes.

Creating a culture with psychological safety fosters a workplace which values open communication and transparency, and can help with preventing little problems from becoming bigger.

Originally published as You've asked, are you OK? What should you do next?

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