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What to say after you ask R U OK? A psychologist on the right follow-up questions to ask and actions to take

As psychologist Rachel Clements well knows, it’s often what you do and say after you ask a loved one R U OK?  that matters most. She suggests the real life questions, and meaningful actions, that will make a difference. 

So, you have reached out to someone you feel has been doing it tough lately, and asked “R U OK?”. What do you say next without glossing over their response? And what if they respond to you saying they’re not OK? How do you handle the situation without going into full panic-mode?

Statistics show that almost half of Australians will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. Therefore, it is important that you know how to have an authentic, R U OK? conversation with someone, and know how to act if someone discloses to you that they are not travelling so well.

How should you respond?

If someone tells you that they are not OK, or you suspect something deeper is going on, encourage them to open up by asking questions such as:

  • “What’s been happening?”
  • “Have you been feeling this way for a while?”
  • “I’m ready to listen if you want to talk.”
  • “What you’re going through isn’t easy, I’m glad we can talk about it.”

Often the best support you can give, is being there to listen and allowing them to express what is troubling them. This simple conversation can show a person that they are valued. You don’t need to have all the answers, but it is helpful to know what resources are available to you can encourage action.

What if the person says they’re OK, but you think they’re not?

Sometimes, if you ask “R U OK?” and the person responds saying they’re fine, but your gut tells you otherwise. When this happens, there are a few things that you can do.

  1. Try the double ask: “But how are you, really?”
  2. Share specific examples: “It’s just that I’ve noticed a few changes in what you’ve been saying/doing lately. Are you coping OK?”

If they continue to deny anything is wrong, respect their decisions and let them know that you are here to support them if needed, and ask if it is OK for you to check-in with them again in a little while.

How to encourage action

Equipping yourself with the knowledge of what support resources are out there, will increase your confidence in not only having an R U OK? conversation, but also going beyond the question, and engaging in an authentic conversation and encouraging the other person to take action to get the support they need. Some suggested questions you can lead with may be:

  • “What do you think a first step that would help you through this?”
  • “Have you spoken to your GP or a health professional about this? It might be a matter of finding the right fit with someone.”
  • “Is there anything that you’ve tried in the past when you’ve felt like this, something that’s made you feel better?”

If the person is not coping, and you are concerned for their wellbeing, support them by calling a helpline or contacting their GP to book in for an appointment. Try not to overwhelm them, and let them feel in control. Additional resources may include:

Finally, don’t forget to check-in on them in a few weeks, or if they are not coping, in a few days. Simply saying “Hey, how have you been since we last chatted?” can show that you value them, and are here to support them.

Rachel Clements is the director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, which she founded in 1999, and an R U OK? expert. She has a special interest in mental health, resilience and wellbeing.