R U OK?

Today is R U OK? day. It’s an annual day nominated by the R U OK? suicide prevention charity to think about the people in our lives and consider if they are okay. More than that, it’s a day to take ourselves in hand, try to be brave and open a conversation if we think someone we know is struggling. Of course this is something that should happen every day. But today is a day to revive our intentions to be a good mate to our family, friends, colleagues, anyone we bump up against in our daily lives. It’s a day to understand a bit more about what drives people to consider suicide, and to learn ways that we can safely help them.

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I’d love each one of you my readers to check out the R U OK? website. Just pick one topic and give 5 minutes of your time to taking on some new knowledge, or understanding, or strategy. It really can change and even save a life. It’s that important.

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Some of the topics I think are great are Mates, resources for every day, news stories and information, but I’m sure you’ll find the topic that makes most sense, or means the most to you.

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I’ve been a mental health advocate (at least I think I have been) for a lot longer than I’ve been ill with mental illness. By that I mean that I’ve considered mentally ill people the same as myself just with a condition requiring treatment, and tried to show to others that they don’t need to be feared. As a child I was used to being around mentally unwell patients. One family friend had schizophrenia and another had bipolar disorder. We saw them regularly, saw them better and worse, visited them in hospital and knew they were just people like the rest of us. And they were just the people who had known, obvious, must-be-treated illnesses. Who knows how many people in my acquaintance had depression or anxiety that was more or less invisible. I wouldn’t know. It was never talked about. If they were there, I never knew. Which is a terrible shame.

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So today is about conversations. I want people to have conversations. But first of all I want to tell you why R U OK? as a charity and a question is so important to me.

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When I was depressed or anxious, I felt awful. I was barely dragging myself around, limping from bed to work and from work to bed. My brain was either whizzing or sluggish; it wasn’t very useful. I felt like all of this must be pasted across my face, and that surely someone would notice today that I was struggling and ask me about it. It had to be written on my forehead, I thought, why can no one see it, why is no one wondering what’s wrong with me? I was just dying for someone to see it and come to my aid.

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But nothing happened. I didn’t want to be attention seeking and bring it up myself, I wasn’t one of those people who was always making a fuss. But I was in pain here, it must be obvious. I thought of a hundred ways to bring it up, but I just couldn’t. It was too obvious a way to start a conversation, there was no easy lead in.

“So you’re having tuna for lunch, that’s interesting, did you know that I’m depressed?”

So I dragged myself around, wondering and waiting and hoping that someone would do the hard part for me and bring up so I could let it all pour out. And do you know the funny thing? Having felt so isolated, like no one could see the real me inside, like I was alone in this experience and so on, once I was officially sick and had told people about it, I had several comments along the lines “oh I thought so” and “I figured something was wrong” and “I knew something wasn’t right” and “you didn’t seem like your usual self”. If just one, only one person had actually said that out loud, it would have been such a relief, a balm, a comfort! It probably would have meant that I got help sooner. It could’ve shorten the process, and I would have been so thankful. It would’ve meant such a lot.

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Speak up. If you can see a change, say something. If things seem different, say so. The worst that can happen is that you’re wrong, and they are just having a bad day or week, or are preoccupied. But how can it hurt? At the least, I’m sure they’ll appreciate your concern, the effort that you’ve gone to, your care. It would be a rare person who would take exception to your kind heart.

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The second part is knowing what to say. The reason for this charity’s name is that R U OK? is a powerful question. It might not seem like it, or seem much different to our usual greetings, but it works. We say hello, hi, howdy, how are you going? what’s up? how’s it going? how’s things? alright? and a hundred similar things so many times a day. And we’re programmed to response almost rote: good thanks, hey there, great, how about you? not much, well, yep and so on. So much so that if someone says something different to these, we can accidentally get caught saying good thanks before we’ve even registered that they’ve asked us what’s up?!

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But R U OK? hits a different nerve. It makes us really think about how we are, and it elicits an honest answer.

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So here’s what I want to do. I want you, one day over the next day or two, to count how many greeting encounters you have in one day. I consider one encounter to be one person say hello and/or how are you and the other person responding. Now I know for myself, home most days, there aren’t very many encounters. But for people working in retail there might be many, maybe more than what I’ve allowed for. I really want to know what your number is! Please get involved and let’s see how many times we bump up against each other each day.

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I’ll post the results as early as possible once you’ve had a chance to respond with data from your working life today and tomorrow. If you don’t read this until the weekend, give me your weekend numbers too.

My aim for this poll is to think about how many times we have a typical hi/how are you conversation. The next step after this is to consider what might happen if we changed ONE of these rote conventional habits into an R U OK? conversation. What could U achieve, how could U have an impact on someone else’s life? You already read my tales of mental illness, so you already have a kind heart and I daresay you want to help others too. This is the perfect chance, and I hope to take the baton and run with it.

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Finding the light

Hello friends,

I’m back. Sorry about missing the blog last week! I tried. I came up with one draft, then discovered it was totally over-dramatic and not what I wanted to say. I did another one, but when I read it back over it just didn’t really seem like much of anything! So, here I am with two discarded drafts, no post for last week, overdue for this week and next week is coming around fast! A bit frustrated!

Why am I so stuck? Why am I spinning my wheels? I want to write about suicide, but this time it’s real, somebody that I used to know. And despite however much distance you’d think “used to know” would put between me and this event, it has gotten under my skin.

For people who suffer with mental illness, hearing about another person’s experiences can be a trigger for a worsening of your own condition. We’re so susceptible to worsening when we’re unwell. It’s different when we’re doing well; we’re resilient and strong. This is especially true abut suicide. Talking about suicide, hearing about suicide, reading about suicide can be a trigger for someone who is unwell to start thinking in circles, over and over about suicide. That’s not to say that someone can cause another person’s suicide. But to a person on the edge metaphorically, it only takes a tiny bump to over-balance.

I’m not suicidal. I’ll clear that up now, and relieve any worried minds. I’m actually doing quite well, but this event has given me pause to think about not being well. It’s quite a long time since I have been suicidal. I have been very fortunate that suicidal thoughts have only been a small part of what I’ve experienced over the last 3 years. I tend towards grey days, nothing dramatic. But still, hearing about someone I’ve known, someone who was one of my first childhood friends, someone who I grew up with ending their life creates a moment of questioning of the situation and myself.

Of course there’re so many questions that come with any death by suicide. Thankfully in this case some of those were answered before the last day. The family were well aware of the mental illness and very supportive of their son, including providing a flexible workplace. Relationships were good, things had seemed to be going well. But there was no questioning why he died because the answer was clear: mental illness. Of course there was the question of could we have done more? But the answer is no: medications, counselling, support all given in full. Just an overwhelming sense of wishing it hadn’t ended this way this soon, but feeling that maybe it couldn’t have gone any other way.

Could something have stopped it happening that day? Yes. Would that have stopped it ever happening? No. Could we the long lost friends have done more, kept in touch? Yes. Would it have changed anything? No. Because it’s not about us, the friends and family. It’s about the mental illness battle ground in a person’s head. However much we love someone and want to help them, we can’t climb inside their head and fight the fight for them. We can only do what we can do from the outside.

Someone with mental illness has different questions that are all for themselves. This person had depression, I have depression; he ended his life, so where does that leave me? If it took xyz for my friend to take his life, what would it take for me to get to that point? They took their life this way, could I do that; if not, what would I do? It’s like being inactively suicidal and contemplating ideas and theoretical points of view, but you have no plan to carry them out; no active suicidality (the medical term for being suicidal). It’s like ruminating on whether I’ll get to go on holidays this year, and if I do where will I go, and what luggage will I need to pack? When patients are actively suicidal they will often have their will written, letters completed to their family, plans for handing over the business and literally will have signed themselves out of their life having hoarded enough poison, collected enough rope, built up the nerve to jump in front of the train etc. Then again sometimes it’s pure impulse on a background of ongoing suicidal thoughts that are just eating away at your will to live. A tipping point is reached, and that’s that.

So I’ve had a period of questioning myself: how am I? Am I doing okay? Are things still under control like they were before I heard the news? I run through my “on the edge” symptom check but there are no tell tales signs; maybe I’m a bit more shaky in my left hand, maybe I’m a touch more anxious, a bit more fixated on anything changing. But after giving myself a few days to take the impact of the news, attend the funeral and debrief, things are okay. I’ve gotten through a potential trigger okay.

Which is bully for me! For the family, the friends grieving now and for a good while to come, where is the light? Where are they to look to find something good out of this? One place that I’ve found comfort is to see the men and boys in my old friends life passing the okay sign around on Facebook in a campaign to vow to listen to each other, to talk about mental illness and suicide, and to try to prevent this from happening again. This has to be one of the best ways to commemorate a death by suicide; a pledge to fight it’s influence and talk about it openly.

I know that its difficult for people to talk about this awful thing that’s happening in their heads. And it’s hard for others to hear what they have to say about it! But we have to be brave; be strong and talk about it. Bringing it out into the daylight is the only way to make it less scary, and to take away its power over us. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. And remember the souls who couldn’t fight it’s power anymore. It wasn’t their fault, they didn’t mean it or even want it, but they were overpowered. Remember that. They were fighting the battle and lost, through no fault of their own. Remember them. Talk about them. Share their story. There is someone out there that you can help if you talk about suicide.

Check out Conversations Matter for videos, fact sheets and resources for talking about suicide.

Use one of the umpteen helpline services that are available in this country. You don’t have to have a mental illness to call. You can call to talk about a friend, someone you knew who died, or just to learn more about mental health. So many people are reluctant to call, so go ahead and buck the trend! Call! Ask questions, learn things, talk to someone on the end of the line anonymously before you talk to a friend. Whatever you do, do something to improve awareness of suicide and prevent it occurring again.

beyondblue 1300 22 4636

SANE 1800 18 7263

Lifeline 13 11 14 (crisis support and suicide prevention service)

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 (free service for people who are suicidal, caring for someone who is suicidal, bereaved by suicide)

Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800 (5 to 25 years old)

Victorian State Suicide Help Line 1300 651 251

Mensline 1300 78 9978

Veterans and veterans families counselling service 1800 011 046

Qlife 1800 184 527 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities)

Carers Australia 1800 242 636

Many more helpful phone numbers and web sites can be found at Mental Health Commission’s Get help page