Content warning: This article contains content about suicide and mental health.
Early this month was R U OK?Day, a day to ask family, friends and colleagues, “are you OK?” Aussie Gavin Larkin started the movement in 2009 after his father, Barry Larkin, died in 1995 by suicide. Gavin’s mission was to protect other families from the pain his family endured. “We intentionally chose the strapline of R U OK?Day being A conversation could change a life, because it actually is the one thing that all of us can do to make a real difference,” says Gavin.
We spoke to Forward’s Peer Support Officer, Joanna Willis, to get her thoughts on the importance of RUOK?Day and reaching out to those around you.
Why are movements like R U OK?Day important?
Most of us know that checking in with each other is important; it helps maintain good relationships and support those close to us. But sometimes, being lost in the minutiae of everyday life can mean we can prioritise more immediate concerns. Specific days like R U OK?Day offer a reminder and provide a good starting point to initiate a difficult conversation. It raises awareness that just because someone appears to be OK on the outside, they may be struggling on the inside and need help and support.
What is peer support, and how can it help someone else? What benefits does it have in comparison to traditional mental health services?
Peer support is about understanding another’s situation empathically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain. We may not have all the same life experiences and for most people their disability is a unique factor that they are unlikely to have in common with family members or friends. Connecting to someone who understands your experiences can be cathartic and reduce feelings of isolation, exclusion, and alienation.
What are some signs to look out for when someone is in need?
While it is important to recognise that some people may not express any obvious signs of not coping, there are some typical signs indicating that someone might need help. Being aware of these signs enables us to support them in getting the help they need:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Reliance on alcohol or other drugs
- No longer engaging in activities they used to enjoy
- Lack of confidence
- Feelings of sadness, failure, guilt, and worthlessness
- Being tired all the time
- Constantly sick and rundown for no apparent reason
- A change in appetite, and particularly a loss of appetite
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Delusional thoughts
We may all experience these symptoms from time to time, which is ok. And it is nothing to be too concerned about in most cases. However, contacting a healthcare professional is crucial if these symptoms persist for an extended period, as they may lead to depression and anxiety.
People living with a spinal cord injury and those close to them, including carers, family members and friends, may display other signs to be vigilant for. This is because they may have experienced different levels of trauma either directly from their experience or vicariously. These signs include:
- Panic attacks
- Excessive and irrational worrying
- Excessive distress when exposed to traumatic news
- Hypervigilance – being easily startled and alert
- Sudden occurrences of sweating, heart palpitations or trembling
- Breathing difficulties
- Muscle aches or headaches
- Nausea, stomach aches or digestive problems
- Withdrawal from people
- Avoidance of things that remind them of the traumatic event
- Feelings of powerlessness
- Sleeplessness and or recurring nightmares
- Confusion, poor memory and slower thinking
- Poor concentration
- Feelings of alienation
- Feelings of numbness
- Continually asking ‘why’
R U OK? released a series of R They Triple OK? resources that focus on the importance of peer and social support for emergency services workers & volunteers. Why do you think it’s important to create these specified resources for people working in high-pressure environments?
People working in high-pressure environments, including jobs that require emotional support and constant care, can experience declines in their mental health and wellbeing. This can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and, at its worst, vicarious trauma, anxiety and depression. There is an added pressure of the emotional aspects of their role in caring for others. We know people with SCI are often placed in these high-pressure environments, like hospitals and group homes, which can potentially compound workers’ and volunteers’ levels of distress. This reminds us of how important it is to regularly check-in with ourselves and those around us – and why resources like the Triple OK are needed.
What are some other resources that people can go to for support? This can be for someone struggling or wanting to reach out.
If you are struggling, there are numerous organisations available that can provide you with support, either free or paid. At Forward Ability Support we provide peer support services and can connect you with psychologists and counsellors. There are also external support services such as BeyondBlue and The Blue Knot Foundation that offer free telephone and online support services.
If you are an NDIS participant, you can also access paid support services using your NDIS funding. Discuss this with your providers or plan managers to discover your options.
What tips or advice would you pass on to someone who wants to initiate a tricky at times conversation?
If you want to initiate a difficult conversation with someone, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Ensure that you are non-judgmental
- Don’t say:
- “You should…” instead use language like “have you considered…”
- “You are so lucky”
- “Why don’t you feel grateful”
- “Everybody feels like this,” or “this isn’t such a big deal”
- “I know how you feel”
These comments can be deemed dismissive and will likely lead to the person you are trying to help to feel even more isolated and distressed.
Instead, try saying something like:
- “I am here for you”
- “Can you think of any way I can help you”
- “Can we look for some support for you together”
- “I know I can’t fix your problem for you, but I care about you, and I’m here to listen anytime you need me”
It is important to know that you do not need to have the right words to say; there are no right words. The best thing you can do is to let the person know that you care, you are there for them, and to demonstrate to them that you will listen without judgement, and that you will support them as best you can in any way they feel would be helpful. Sometimes just being with them in silence can be an incredible show of support.
If you or someone you know is not OK and struggling with their mental health, call LifeLine on 13 11 14.