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The simple question that can be difficult to ask

Published:08 September 2021

R U OK? Day 2021

Thursday, 9 September is R U OK? Day – a national day that highlights the importance of checking in with family, friends and colleagues who seem like they’re struggling.

As a society, we have come a long way in the past decade in de-stigmatising mental health struggles. However, COVID-19 has had far-reaching and pervasive effects that none of us could have possibly anticipated.

Two years ago, to be asked to live a life without the comforts we are afforded living in a country like Australia, such as freedom to travel, the ability to purchase supermarket staples without the threat of rationing, or even something so simple as embracing an old friend in greeting would have been unimaginable.

While it is normal to experience a range of emotions when faced with changed, the pandemic has seen an increase in individuals struggling with their mental health and wellbeing (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021).  

CQUniversity Master of Clinical Psychology student Caitlin Sparkes said the good news is that most people do learn to cope with change but approaching such a sensitive topic can be challenging.

“A possible issue with simply asking someone if they are OK is the automatic response ‘yes, I’m fine’,” Caitlin explained.

“Try using more open questions such as:

  • How have you been lately? What’s been happening?
  • You haven’t seemed like yourself lately. I would really like to listen to what’s been going on.
  • How are you doing? Anything you want to chat about?
  • What’s going on with you at the moment?

“Connecting with others can be one of the most powerful and life-affirming things we can do as human beings. When we feel connected and supported we are more likely to tackle the challenges of life.”

Rosie Akers, who is also a Master of Clinical Psychology student with CQUniversity, said recognising the signs of someone who is developing mental health issues can be difficult.

“If you notice yourself or someone you care about has stopped doing the things that matter to them such as losing enjoyment in hobbies, withdrawing from family/friends, spending more time in bed than usual or using strategies such as excessive alcohol, drugs, sleep, or unhealthy foods to cope, it may be helpful to get some support,” Rosie said.

“Talking with a trusted person, either a family member, friend, counsellor or psychologist, about your concerns can be a good place to start.

“There are also a number of great wellbeing apps that you can download. Headspace and Smiling Mind are two apps that offer a range of guided meditation and mindfulness exercises, while the ACT Companion app walks you through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).”

The charity Lifeline says daily calls to their support line have increased by 40 per cent this year compared to two years ago – before the pandemic swept the nation in early 2020.

With millions of Australians living under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, on Monday, 3 August 2021 the telephone crisis counselling service broke their record for daily calls, with more than 3400 people reaching out for help.

Chairman John Brogden said although the figures are concerning, it is positive people are accessing support.

"The top say ten days in the history of Lifeline have been this year, so it demonstrates I think what we're all feeling that this lockdown is a lot tougher than last year's lockdown and the spread of Delta is obviously much stronger and frankly scarier," he said.

"Now, that's putting pressure on the system there's no doubt about that, but in the end it means people are reaching out and they're stopping short of suicide and that is probably the most remarkable figure I've seen out of the COVID pandemic."

Lifeline is among many organisations in Australia that provide free and confidential counselling services. Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service and This Way Up both offer free online tools and support specifically targeted at people struggling through the pandemic.

This year, staff and students at CQUniversity’s Rockhampton North campus will host an R U OK? Day event in a bid to start the conversation and keep it going. While CQUniversity Lecturer in Clinical Psychology Dr Matthew Condie will participate in a fundraiser at F45 Yeppoon on Saturday, 11 September, where he and fellow members will train for eight hours of continuous classes to raise both funds and awareness for mental health.