Every year on R U OK? Day, we’re reminded to check in with those around us to find out how they’re feeling.
Asking the question seems like a simple act, but it can be one of the hardest to ask.
Research from the Royal Flying Doctor Service has found that each year one in five Australians living in rural and remote locations will experience a mental disorder. The prevalence of mental disorders in remote and rural Australia is the same as that in major cities, but people living remotely have access to fewer services.
Mental health clinical team leader for Far North Queensland, Jos Middleton, says that’s not surprising.
“Stressors that can influence people’s mental health are definitely greater in those rural and remote areas. The isolation that people experience is literally a killer for people. Other challenges people find are that it’s harder to access services, the small-town gossip can be hard to cope with at times and employment opportunities can be more limited too.”
Given that living outside of Australia’s bigger towns and cities can present unique challenges, it’s particularly important for people living in remotely to look out for each other.
Consider – is this the right time? Am I the right person?
Jos says there are a few things to consider before asking RUOK though. Firstly, “it’s important to consider is this the right time to be asking this question? If you’re asking somebody in the workplace and they’re busily typing away at their desk, it’s probably not the best time. Equally if they’re on the school pick up, it’s probably not the best time either because you need to have the time to be present for the answer.”
“It’s also worth considering are you the right person? You might have a little bit of history with that person which might suggest that you might not be. That doesn’t mean to say you don’t ask. It means that you might want to reach out to someone else who has a good relationship with that person and see if they have similar concerns and would be willing to check in with them.”
Focus on behaviour, explain why you’re concerned
Jos also says that a good approach to asking the question is to weave it into a natural conversation and identify that the person hasn’t seemed themselves recently. “It helps if you can point out what behaviours you’ve seen, what symptoms you’ve noticed that have caused you to worry. So instead of just saying ‘are you okay?’ perhaps say ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been looking a little tired recently. Is everything okay?’. By identifying a change in their behaviour or personality that takes the attention away from that person thinking that there’s something wrong with them and it focusses the attention on the behaviour or the symptom.”
If they’re not ready to talk, don’t push it
Finally, if the person isn’t ready to talk, it’s important not to force the issue. Jos says this may not be easy. “It can be really hard, especially for families when they know there’s something wrong, but the only reason we need to worry about people not wanting help is if there are immediate safety concerns. If the person isn’t ready to get help, that’s okay.”
Jos explains that there are a couple of things we can do still do if the person doesn’t want to talk. “Give them a document or a flyer with services, provide those numbers to that person so that when that person does feel ready to access some help, they know who to call.”
If the answer is no, spend a little more time with the person
Jos says that if the answer to the questions is no, to spend a little more time with the person. “Work out what’s not okay, use that curiosity and explore what’s going on for them. It’s worth asking how long they’ve been feeling this way, have they had felt this way before and if so, was there something that helped last time?”. She says, it’s also worth finding out if there are specific problems that the person has been experiencing and then doing what you can to help practically.
“When we’ve got all of those changes in the personality and behaviour it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees and some of the simplest problem solving can become so overwhelming.”
According to Jos, the most important thing to be conscious of is that the person feels in control throughout the conversation. Ask the question, you could save a life.
For more pointers from Jos on how to ask the question and help with the answer, listen to the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) podcast here & you can find out more about the Flying Doctor's mental health programs in Queensland here.
If you or anyone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 anytime.