On RUOK Day we're encouraged to check in with people around us and reduce feelings of distress or loneliness by asking the simple question ‘are you okay?’.
Simple, right? But many people doubt the benefit of this idea. It's a fair question. Is it just a fad? Does it really do any good? Can asking a question really change a life?
If you’re unsure, here are three stories from people who were lucky enough to be asked. They show the power of the question and why it’s always worth asking, no matter the day, time or situation.
Kate remembers being asked when she was at school.
I was walking along a hallway thinking about ways to end it. A teacher who had not taught me for a couple of years was walking in the opposite direction. She stopped me by calling my name. She asked me if I was ok. I said ‘fine’ and kept going.
She saved my life. Just being seen by another human who cared enough to ask made that much of a difference. It didn't stop me from being depressed, but the suicidal ideation was much less intense after that. Over 30 years later and I'm still here today.
Kate’s story reveals how we don’t need any special skills or language to help someone in need. We just need to ask the question. The impact may be far greater than we could have predicted. Just being asked the question made Kate feel visible and cared for. It was enough to save her life.
Sophie, who lives with bipolar affective disorder, explains the power of being heard without judgement.
That someone cares enough to ask made a huge impact on me. That someone was listening and not telling me to stop being so melodramatic. That's powerful stuff. It's not something I'll ever forget.
It’s not uncommon for people who open up about their feelings to have the intensity, even the reality, of their distress minimised. They may hear a response like ‘are you sure you’re not just over-reacting, misinterpreting, being overly sensitive?’. Sophie’s story shows that we can have a powerful, lasting, positive effect on a person’s wellbeing just by listening without judgment.
‘Are you okay?’ is not asked as often as you might think. So for the person being asked, just hearing it can be a positive, memorable experience. Lana says that the question is deeply etched into her memory.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ (Oh yes, I was very belligerent)
‘Are you thinking of harming yourself?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Are you thinking of suicide?’
‘Yes. What’s it to you?’
‘Can we go somewhere quiet and talk? I’d like to hear about your reasoning.’
Very, very reluctantly, I conceded ten minutes. Well, the floodgates opened and three hours later I was calmer than I’d been for a long time. I agreed to talk another day. That kicked off therapy for me and the rest is history. Having the feeling that someone actually cared made all the difference.
Some gentle, caring persistence broke through Lana’s defences and allowed for a powerful conversation that changed her life.
These stories show the difference one question can make. Not everyone who is asked responds at the time, and not everyone who asks pursues the conversation further. It’s the intention, the kindness and concern, that makes the difference.
So this RUOK Day, don’t worry about finding the right words. Don’t hesitate if you don’t know what you’ll say next. Break the silence. Ask the question. And know, no matter what the reply, you might have made a world of difference.
If you want to learn more about asking the question and responding to someone who is not okay, you can read Suzanne's blog Five tips for responding to someone who isn’t ‘OK’.