Being here to hear when someone says they are not okay

12 September 2023
Starting a conversation and listening on R U OK? Day
Every year we are encouraged on R U OK? Day to reach out to our family, friends and workmates to check in on their mental health, but it can be difficult to know what to do if someone says ‘no'. We asked the Matilda Centre for their advice on how to prepare yourself for an answer of ‘no, I’m not okay'.

Every year in September, the annual R U OK? Day is a reminder for Australians to check in with their family, friends and loved ones about their mental health.

When we are focused on the day-to-day, our mental health can slip from our priority, especially as it can slowly decline over time.

Pressures such as cost of living, insecure employment and social isolation has seen an increase in mental health distress in Australia so reaching out is more important than ever.

However, it can be difficult to hear that a person is having difficulty managing their mental health.

It can invoke feelings of guilt, stress, and empathy, and can be easy to unintentionally dismiss.

Australians are notorious for our ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude, but dismissing mental distress can lead to delays in seeking professional support.

Knowing what to say and how to approach supporting a loved one through distress can be tough, but being prepared for a ‘no, I am not okay’ can make the difference.

At the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, we sat down with several of our researchers to ask for their advice on how to prepare yourself to support someone if they are experiencing mental distress.

Read their responses below.

Dr Erin Kelly, Clinical Psychologist and Research Fellow, and Jo Cassar, Clinical Psychologist

An image of Dr Erin Kelly. She is a blonde woman with shoulder-length hair, and is wearing clear frames and a plain green shirt.

Dr Erin Kelly.

“Be prepared to just listen and not say a lot in response. Often “less is more”.

Someone reaching out for support will often have thought through their situation a lot and may already be aware of ways to problem solve.

Validating their emotions may be far more powerful than providing a solution.

an image of Jo Cassar. She has shoulder length dark brown hair and is wearing a turqouise top. She is leaning forward and smiling.

Jo Cassar

Some people may respond and want someone to listen, others may be looking for guidance about how to get professional help.

It can help to educate yourself beforehand on available professional services such as encouraging someone to go to their GP or accessing EAP (if available) or if they are in crisis helping them to phone 000 or the Mental Health Access Line 1800 011 511.”

Jayden Sercombe
Research Assistant and PhD Candidate, ‘The mental wellbeing of crisis supporters.’
Former Lifeline crisis counsellor

An image of Jayden Sercombe. He is a man with short dark hair, a brown moustache and is wearing a patterned black shirt. He is smiling in the photo.

Jayden Sercombe

“A revelation for me was that talking to someone about their mental health doesn’t have to be an ‘intervention’ style discussion.

It can be a casual chat with a person who isn’t doing so well at the moment. I think R U OK Day is all about letting people know you’re there if they are struggling and giving them an opening to talk.  

In my research within the crisis helpline space, I've learned that creating a safe and open environment is key. When you ask, 'Are you okay?' truly mean it, and be ready to hear people out if the answer is 'no.'

Listen actively and let them know you're here if they would like help. Sometimes, the most powerful way to support someone's mental health is by simply being present and willing to listen.”

Dr Louise Birrell
NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow
Former Lifeline crisis counsellor

An image of Louise Birrell. She is a blonde haired woman wearing a green shirt and black glasses. She is smiling.

Dr Louise Birrell

“Be ready for some ambivalence. It’s not uncommon for people to downplay their mental health struggles or be reluctant to seek help. This is normal.

Try not to assume you know what they are going through or offer solutions, just listen to them. It can be helpful to ask what they would like you to do to support them.

Don’t take on more than you can handle. Have some mental health services or support lines (like Lifeline 13 11 14) on hand and encourage them to reach out for support or suggest going with them to get support.”

Associate Professor Emma Barrett
NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow, Psychologist, and Program Lead of Trauma and Crime Research

A photo of Emma Barrett. She is a blonde haired woman wearing a black shirt. She is smiling.

Associate Professor Emma Barrett

The aim of asking the simple question, “R U OK?”, is an invitation for people to open up and talk about how they’re feeling.

That means if someone chooses not to open up at that time, that’s totally fine.

When you ask this question to someone, you might have an assumption in your mind about how they’re feeling. It’s important to be open and curious as you may be surprised with what they say.

For those who do express that they’re not feeling great, it’s important we i) listen without judgement, we ii) validate their feelings, we iii) avoid jumping to solutions and trying to “fix” them and we iv) ask them if there’s anything we can do to help. Taking the pressure off ourselves to find a solution then allows us the space just to listen and show our support and care.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental distress or needs crisis support, please contact Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636).