Alex* was a popular kid. He seemed OK. He was good at sports, doing fine at school, and came from an affluent, strong family.
But in early September, 2019, the Year 11 boy took his life.
In the days following Alex’s suicide, several of his friends spoke to school counsellors and disclosed, “I had a feeling he wasn’t OK. But I didn’t know what to do or who to tell.”
Each September our social media feeds are flooded with people asking each other, ‘R U OK?’ These are wonderful sentiments. I’m all for it. The outpouring of concern is powerful. It’s helpful. It’s positive. And yet… there’s something missing. It’s a great start. But it’s not enough. While R U OK day has led to important breakthroughs for many people (and has likely saved lives) too many people nod and say, “yep I’m ok”, when they’re not.
And what do we do when someone responds with “Actually, no. I’m not ok at all”? The official R U OK Day site says, ‘R U OK? Day is our national day of action dedicated to reminding everyone to ask, “Are you OK?”’ But what matters most in that sentence is not the question. It’s the word ”action”.
Having the conversation
A survey of 2000 adults showed that the average adult is fudging the truth when they tell us “I’m fine”. My own recent research with 400 Aussie teen girls affirms that they lie to us all the time about being “OK”. After all, it’s just what we say isn’t it? And we don’t really want to tell everyone our problems.
Does that mean we should stop asking R U OK? Of course not. What it does mean is that we might be able to learn to ask better. And listen better.
This is equally important for our children as it is for other adults. In 2017, 180 children and adolescents completed suicides, accounting for approximately 35% of deaths in those aged 19 and under. Through their unspeakable pain and grief, too many grieving parents will cry, “We had no idea things were that bad.”
I was invited to speak at Alex’s school about a week after his suicide. I spoke with students. I talked with staff. I spent time working with the school’s counsellors. And then I spoke to parents.
They all wanted to know: “How do I deal with a child who is depressed, anxious, self-harming, or having suicidal thoughts?” This is what I told them:
Tip 1: Just like dollars are the currency of our economy, attention is the currency of our relationships. Spending time in the relationship is critical for our children to be willing to talk with us, trust us, and disclose their struggles to us. We must prioritise our relationships over TV, email, cleaning the house, exercise, socialising, and in serious situations, even work. To a child LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E.
Tip 2: If you sense they’re not ok, tell them that. Be up front. Here’s how: “I’ve seen how hard things have been at school lately. You’ve come home sad. You’ve preferred to stay in your bedroom. Things seem rough.” “You seem to be really struggling lately. I’ve been trying to reach you but you seem to really feel like you want to be alone.” “It feels like the whole world is crashing down for you at the moment doesn’t it. Sometimes it all feels like it’s too much.” There’s an old saying that “if you can name it, you can tame it.” What we’re trying to do with those we love is to put a name to the emotion that might be dragging them down. When we do that, they feel understood.
Tip 3: Don’t try to fix things. You usually can’t. Instead, name the emotion and then sit with them in their struggle. Let them open up. Listen. That’s it. While writing my soon-to-be-published book about teen girls, “ Miss-Connection ” I was writing about compassion. I discovered that the word literally means “to suffer with”. If someone is not ok, we can’t fix them. But we can suffer with them. We can see they’re struggling and step into that struggle with them. That’s true compassion. And that’s how we truly help.
Tip 4: Tell them you love them. No. Matter. What. Relationships are at the heart of wellbeing. When someone doesn’t feel “ok”, they often feel unworthy. Reassurance that they are valued – loved – is key. The added confirmation that they matter to you – no matter what – can be pricelessly affirming. It assures them of their worth. They hear you promise that they mean something to you. They make a difference.
If your child, or someone you love, is not ok:
Take it seriously.
Find out if they need urgent help.
If you are concerned, ask the question: “Have you been thinking about self-harming or suicide?” Many of us will shy away from conversations like this. But asking those kinds of questions doesn’t increase the risk of suicide – in fact, they can actually help someone feel less distressed. It’s ok to ask.
If they say yes, drive them to your nearest Emergency Department and tell them you have a child who is talking about suicide. Don’t wait. Just go.
And don’t wait until R U OK day to ask.
Contact beyondblue at 1300 22 46 36 for information about mental health
Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467 for suicide and crisis support.
Contact 000 for emergencies.