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Five tips for responding to someone who isn’t ‘OK’

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Person is sitting in a comfortable chair with a coffee and looking out the window thoughtfully.

It takes courage to ask simply and directly, ‘are you okay?’, if concerned about someone's mental health.

What if they’re actually fine? Will they be offended? And what do you do if they aren’t okay?

These are common concerns people have when it comes to asking a friend, colleague or loved one ‘are you okay?’. So it’s tempting to frame the question in a way that encourages a positive response, ‘you’re okay, aren’t you?’ 

We often do this because we’re not sure how to respond if the answer is ‘no’. But that’s certainly not helping your friend, and it reinforces the reluctance or stigma we feel when talking about mental health issues.

Sometimes it can help to mention any changes you’ve seen that have caused concern. For example, if someone seems more withdrawn than normal (which can be a symptom of depression) you could say ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve not wanted to come out much lately. Is there something worrying you?’ 

Sometimes  people find it easier to talk when doing something like going for a walk, driving, or doing another shared activity, rather than sitting across a table from someone.  

Five tips for responding to someone who is doing it tough

  1. A simple, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ is a good response. You might follow this up with, ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ to open up the conversation if the time and situation is appropriate. If not, agree on a more suitable time to talk, and reassure them that you're there to listen. Sometimes people might talk with a little more prompting, if they feel they can trust you. 

  2. Try listening to the emotions behind their words. You can try reflecting back what they say or validating them. Validating is showing that you recognise and accept their experience as valid. You could do this by saying something like, 'I would be stressed too if that was happening to me' or 'I can understand why that makes you angry.' 

  3. There is great comfort to be given by simply listening and caring. Often showing that you're really listening can be helped by your body language (nodding and making eye contact where you can) and by summarising back parts of what you hear. There are often too few opportunities in our busy lives for connections based on these simple kindnesses. 

  4. Focus on asking questions and discussing what they're going through, rather than trying to provide answers or solve problems. Giving people a chance to share their experiences and voice their concerns without judgement is of great benefit. It helps people to feel less alone and more hopeful. Remember that responsibility for finding solutions does not lie with you. The best solutions are generally reached by the person themselves.

  5. Are they linked in with a mental health professional or even a support group? If the aren't sure how to access these services, you may be able to help them get started. Often contacting a trusted GP is a good place to start.
  6. If someone is thinking about suicide it’s especially important that they know that help is available. Lifeline has telephone and online support 24 hours a day, or in an emergency call 000. Find out more about how to help when someone is suicidal.

When someone says they're ok, but you suspect they aren't

Rather than an answer of 'no', it is possible for the person you care about to respond with a 'yeah I'm okay' or 'I'm fine'. If you’re not convinced, try asking the question a different way, or mentioning why you're asking in the first place - for example, if you've noticed any changes.

If they still say they're fine, or they don't want to talk, let them know that you are always available should they want to talk. It's worth sending them a message a few hours later reiterating your support. By keeping the door open you will make it easier for them to connect and open up in the future.

Remember a conversation could change a life and the simple gesture of compassion can have a profound effect on someone who is going through tough times.

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