TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with mental illness and suicide. I’m being kind. I’m advocating care and not just awareness, but if you are feeling fragile – then the place to be is calling your local hospital or GP and getting in fast. If you can’t fathom doing that, then call a friend, demand they drop everything and come over to make you herbal tea until you can fathom it. If you ARE okay – read on.
Cruelly, ironically, today is “R U OK?” day. This week, I’ve read that a minister and mental health advocate died by suicide the day he buried a Christian woman who died by suicide. The news headlines in Australia are still covering the death of Danny Frawley, a football personality who had been open about his mental health struggles before dying tragically in a single-car collision this week. The first thing I did when I woke this morning, after wrangling two moody toddlers out of their dirty nappies, was check in on a dear friend who is going through a hard time. I can’t tell you the profound relief I felt when they sent me a snapchat that clearly depicted chairs in a doctors waiting room.
I’m all for awareness. But I hate it too. Because too often it stops at awareness not action. We all know about breast cancer. How many of us know how to do a breast check, or what the signs are when something is abnormal? We all know about prostate cancer and Movember that raises money and awareness for men’s health issues like depression and that very cancer. But how many men skip that part of the check-up because it’s awkward to ask a doc to, well, you know. R U OK? Day is a great initiative that encourages people to notice any changes and ask “R U OK?” but my big heart-break is this: How many of us actually went to the website and got any tips on what to do if someone wasn’t okay? How many of us are prepared if the answer is “No.”?
People with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses do need our support. They do need us to be aware. But they also need us to know what to do. Bowling up to them in the lunchroom and asking “Are you okay?” because its the day for it isn’t the response they need.
Here is what they do need:
- Go to the website first. The R U OK website shows what to look for that might prompt you to ask if someone is okay. It notes things like any changes in routine, changes in mood stability, sleep patterns, concentration, engagement with activities they love, and things like work relational or financial stress. There’s more. Go to the website and have a look. Once you know what to look for, its a little easier to spot when something is going wrong for someone. Mind you, sometimes we don’t spot it. That’s why it matters to keep checking in on your loved ones all year round. Not just today.
- Listen and take time to hear whats going on, but don’t rush to chime in with advice. Pro-tip: Do not, I repeat DO NOT, send someone motivational memes if you think they are at risk. That is not likely to help the situation. Do something practical instead – something that makes them feel safe, cared for, and like they are not alone. It might be dropping around with coffee and a chat. It might be making dinner, dropping it over and hanging around to ask if everything is okay. If they start to open up, don’t rush in with your advice. This is a time to hear what is going on, empathize, and help them consider getting professional help. Because let me tell you, from someone who knows, advice like “Oh you just need to…” or “This meme always helps me” has (in the past) just made me want to rage-cry or swing punches. Imagine feeling like you are a 90 on the subjective units of distress scale and someone hits you with that. I know you mean well. But if someone is in real mental health distress and you aren’t a professional, then leave the advice to them. Your job is to love, listen, bring calm, and get help.
- Know the phone numbers for your local mental health triage service (usually a hospital near you). If you don’t know that, then phoning the persons GP and saying “I need an emergency mental health assessment for X” will get you in the door ASAP. If it doesn’t, insist. If it still doesn’t, just go to the emergency room. Don’t take no for an answer if you believe a person to be at risk. If you can’t get someone to get in the car and go, then Beyond Blue has a hotline you can call to get immediate assistance. (If you are in another country, you might have to find out what your local mental health support hotline are. They are there, and they are usually free.
- Don’t just listen and run. You might need to be the one who gets the ball rolling and gets this person physically in the door with the help they need. You might need to alert next of kin, or arrange a group of supportive friends to continue to love and care for this person until they are back on sure footing. If they are in crisis, then nothing is simple for them. Call their mother, or best friend, or doctor, or whoever they would normally call. Do it for them if that is what they need.
- Never treat mental illness as a weakness or as something that’s “in their head.” Its a life-threatening illness in many cases. So treat it seriously, with care, empathy, dignity and respect.
- If you are Australian, I’d strongly recommend doing a Mental Health First Aid course. I did this one a few years ago and it is wonderful. Highly recommend.
Don’t assume that your Christian friends, or your strong friends, or your funny friends are not going to struggle. If you notice any of the warning signs (listed on the R U OK website I linked above) then check-in with them. Adhering to faith doesn’t protect you from mental illness. It can just cover up deep feelings of darkness without ever addressing them. Worse still, it can make someone feel shame for suffering a mental illness. It shouldn’t. It absolutely shouldn’t. Strength of personality can often mean that a person doesn’t know how to reach out because they perceive that they are the strong ones everyone else turns to. Humour can deflect away from dark thoughts.
Hey – I’m a funny, strong, Christian woman. I’ve felt all of these things. It is a double-edged sword, let me tell you. So if you are reading this and you are okay, check on your people.
If you are reading this and you are not okay, call your people. If I am one of your people, call me. Even if we have already spoken today. You aren’t a pest. You are valuable. You aren’t weak. You aren’t faulty. You aren’t hopeless (even if it feels like it right now). Let the right people get you through this thing. Call your doctor and your best friend in whichever order you need to.
Peace (which is always a throw-away sign off but today I mean it)