Many initiatives throughout Australia are working hard to lessen the stigma of depression, loneliness, and mental illness. These efforts are critical, offering a lifeline to the estimated 1 in 8 facing significant psychological distress.
September 8th is Australia’s R U OK? Day. Its aims are to inspire and empower us to connect meaningfully with others by asking, “Are you okay?” Doing so may be the invitation someone needs to speak openly about their struggles and begin taking steps to turn them around.
The R U OK? Conversation
Science shows that a key driver of mental wellbeing across the lifespan is perceived social support—our belief that we can share our concerns with others who care. Campaigns like R U OK? Day are powerful for creating this bridge between us and others.
One study found that simply being reminded of the campaign makes us six times more likely to reach out to someone in our lives who may be struggling.
Checking in with someone you’re worried about may feel awkward, but it doesn’t need to be. You can start with a simple question like, “How are you going?”
You might then mention the specific things that have made you concerned. For instance, you might note that they’ve seemed quieter than usual and ask whether something’s on their mind. Allow the person to take their time, acknowledge their feelings, and listen with an open mind.
Ask the person how you can best support them, and together, you might explore possible ways they could manage their situation or whether they would be open to getting some expert advice. Lastly, make a point to touch base with the person in a couple of weeks, or sooner if they’re really struggling. You can learn more and get step-by-step advice for having a life-changing conversation at the R U OK? website.
Feeling OK Speaking Up
If you’re on the other side of an R U OK? conversation, you may feel nervous speaking honestly about your troubles. Perhaps you feel self-conscious about needing help or are afraid of burdening others with your problems.
It can be hard to speak openly about our challenges. However, no matter what you’re struggling with, reaching out for help is one of the surest paths to overcoming life’s challenges. Likewise, psychologists have identified many compelling reasons to do so:
- You’re not alone. It’s estimated that almost half of Australian adults will be affected by psychological struggles at some point in their life, but most can overcome or successfully manage these challenges with the right help.
- You might be surprised. A willingness to share our struggles actually tends to strengthen our relationships. This is because it creates a safe space for others to be vulnerable, creating a bridge for two people to support one another.
- Others want to connect. Our current culture celebrates self-reliance and independence, forgetting that humans are interdependent and need connection to thrive. If you’re feeling alone, there are undoubtedly others who share your struggles and would value the chance to feel seen and heard by someone who can relate.
Keeping these facts in mind can help you push through apprehensions you may have about sharing your struggles—so don’t give up. Reach out to a friend, connect to a community, or make a call to turn things around today.
3 Tips to Create Safety in Your Communication
In addition to checking in, there’s plenty we can do to facilitate the openness and safety that supports mental wellbeing all year round.
Here are three proven skills from psychology to deepen connections and support those you care for today.
Listen with Empathy
We all know the basics of being a good listener. For example, we should maintain eye contact, show attentiveness, and try not to interrupt. However, you can level up your listening by leveraging the specific skill of empathy in your conversations.
When we practice empathy, we aim to deeply understand someone else’s experience, feelings, or viewpoint. We do this by taking extra care to understand the emotional tone of the speaker’s message.
Here’s how you do this:
- When a person finishes speaking, restate their message to check you’ve understood their intended meaning. For example: “Let me see if I have this right, you’re saying…” or “So if I understand you, you’re saying…”
- Acknowledge the emotions the other person is feeling. For example: “That must be really frustrating,” or “I’d be feeling hurt in that situation too.”
- Ask questions to show a desire to understand. For example: “How are you dealing with the stress?” or “Have you thought about telling them how you feel?”
By practicing empathy, we can not only show support but give others a chance to clarify their emotions and explore possible ways to manage difficult situations.
In the moment-to-moment flow of conversation, we often tend to get distracted. Instead of listening, we may think about ourselves or what we’ll say next rather than bringing our full awareness to what the other person is saying.
The remedy for these common distractions is mindful listening. This practice involves bringing full awareness to what someone is saying with an open mind and non-judgmental awareness.
To practice mindful listening, try this:
- When it’s the other person’s turn to speak, take a deep breath and relax as you begin listening.
- Imagine your hearing is like a laser, and focus it on what the other person is saying. Try to tune out any distractions in your environment.
- Notice when your attention begins straying inward toward thoughts about yourself or what you’ll say next. When this happens, gently return attention to the other person and trust that you’ll remember what you were going to say when it comes time for you to speak next.
When you get skilled at mindful listening, others will begin to notice. They’ll feel personally touched by your attentiveness and that rare feeling of being ‘seen’ by another person.
One way to foster connection is to allow others to see our vulnerability. Indeed, research shows that self-disclosure and a willingness to express negative emotions increase closeness and can strengthen friendships.
Here are some ways to model this kind of openness and strengthen intimacy in your relationships:
- Don’t be afraid to reveal your flaws (and laugh about them). Doing so can signal authenticity and humility, which increases trust, self-disclosure, and social bonding.
- Speak openly about challenges you’ve overcome and what these experiences have taught you. This “second-hand wisdom” can help others find meaning in their own challenges and may even be a catalyst to improving their own mental health.
- Stay curious in your relationships. Research shows that when you ask more questions and are forthright in answering others’, it can create a spiral of give-and-take that builds intimacy and makes you a more attractive conversation partner.
The research is clear: A conversation really can change a life.
So be sure to check in with someone you care about this R U OK? Day, and consider using these tips to be a kinder communicator and build greater connection in your relationships today.