Health & Wellbeing

How to tell someone U R not OK

Answering the question R U OK can be difficult. Phoebe Metcalfe dips into their mental health toolkit for first-person advice and resources from the University that can help you navigate this conversation.

Have you ever been put on the spot by the question R U OK?

In theory, this day (8 Sept 2022, R U OK Day) is supposed to enable conversations around mental ill health, keep you accountable for checking in with your friends, and recognise the positive support systems in your life. But what if you struggle to respond with “No”?

It is very much ingrained in Australian culture to have these meaningless passing pleasantries:

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m good, thanks. How are you?”

“Yeah, good.”

Neither person has said anything, because “good” isn’t really good, it’s nothing, it’s empty.

So when someone asks “Hey, are you okay?” it seems natural to say “Yeah”. But, are you?

It is a skill to be able to both share and engage in conversations about mental health, and for me personally, it has taken me years to learn how not to emotionally dump all over my friends, and not take on their struggles (#empath)…and I’m still learning.

These are some things I have found that have helped me have conversations with my friends and family, both asking the question, and answering it:

Don’t ask R U OK

“Are you okay?” is a closed question. It doesn’t easily enable a conversation, and can allow people to just answer “Yeah”.

Taken directly from the R U OK resource section of their website:

  • Help them open up by asking questions like “How are you going?” or “What’s been happening?”
  • Mention specific things that have made you concerned for them, like “You seem less chatty than usual. How are you going?”

Check your capacity

On any other day, I have started to ask my friends if they have the capacity to let me rant, or open up, because if their shit bucket is already full and I start pouring more shit in it, it becomes shit city for both of us, and that’s not OK.

If you are the one wanting to instigate this conversation with someone you’re worried about, or might seem a little off, check your own capacity and headspace. There is only so much you can see on a surface level and you don’t know how deep it can go. You have to be responsible for your own mental health first.

My psychologist once told me, “if you’re on a plane and it is going down, you’re always told to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.” Think about having the same attitude towards mental health support.

However, on R U OK Day, if someone is asking you the question I would take that as a sign that they have room for you to open up – although asking again will never hurt.

Ask what your confider needs from you

If someone has started to confide in you it is helpful to ask them what they want from you. Not in those words, though! Some people just need an ear and no responses are needed, others might be seeking advice, and sometimes people just want you to support them, and be on their side. Phrasing this question, I have found, is also integral to the conversation.

Rather than, “what do you need?” or “how can I help you?”, offer some options.

eg. “What can I do to support you through this? Would you like me to just listen, offer solutions, do you need physical support like a hug etc.?”

Remember, empathy = support and sympathy = pity for a lot of people. Some people find it hard to open up to others because they don’t want to seem weak, and they don’t want to be pitied. There is a fine line to walk, but researching the difference can make the most positive changes in your communication skills.

Be patient

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: opening up is HARD.

If you’re talking, take your time to find your words, there is no rush for you to have everything ready to say eloquently and perfectly. These conversations are messy and muddled, but your confidant is there for you. You are not a burden, be kind to yourself.

If you’re listening, try not to interrupt and ask questions, or offer solutions. When a lot of these conversations begin, they will open floodgates. Sometimes what they say might not make sense, you might completely disagree with their thinking, but give them a safe space, and time to let it out. You don’t know how long these things have been bottled up.

Find relevant support services

Batyr is a mental health support service on campus that helps young people have conversations about their mental ill-health. From their FREE Being Herd workshops on learning how to share your story safely, to their resources for young people, Batyr is smashing the stigma that surrounds mental health and prevents these conversations.

The University of Newcastle also has so so many support services. They’re all free! There’s counselling, After-Hours Support phone line, Adverse Circumstances, workshops and seminars (if sitting down and talking about your feelings isn’t your thing – it’s definitely mine).

Take advantage of the things the university community can provide, you are never, and will never, be on this journey alone.

If this article has brought anything up for you, please reach out to someone for support or contact:

Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

Lifeline 13 11 14

The University of Newcastle After-Hours Support 1300 653 007

Feature image by cottonbro CG via, with changes.

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