R U OK Day has been and gone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t stop asking the question.
What do you do if someone says ‘no’?
It’s mostly about listening.
R U OK Day encourages all of us to check in with others to see if they’re OK. But what if someone says “no”? What should you say or do? Should you tell someone else? What resources can you point to, and what help is available?
Here is a guide.
Stop and listen, with curiosity and compassion
We underestimate the power of simply listening to someone else when they’re going through a rough time. You don’t need to be an expert with ten years of study in psychology to be a good listener. Here are some tips:
Pay attention, be present and allow the person time to speak.
Ask about the person’s experience using open questions such as
“What’s been going on lately?” Or, “You don’t seem your usual self, how are you doing/feeling?”
Validate their concerns.
See the situation from the person’s perspective and try not to dismiss their problems or feelings as unimportant or stupid. You can say things like : “I can see you’re going through a tough time – it’s understandable to feel that way given everything you’ve been going through”.
There are more examples of good phrases to use here.
Don’t try to fix the problem right now
Often our first instinct is wanting to fix the person’s problems. It hurts to see others in pain, and we can feel awkward or helpless not knowing how to help. But you don’t have to have all of the answers.
Instead of jumping into “fix it” mode right away, accept the conversation may be uncomfortable and allow the person to speak about their difficulties and experiences.
Sometimes it’s not the actual suggestion or practical help that’s most useful but giving the person a chance to talk openly about their struggles. Also, the more we understand the person’s experience, the more likely we are to be able to offer the right type of help.
Encourage them to seek help.
Ask: “How can I help? “Is there something I can do for you right now?”
Sometimes it’s about keeping them company (making plans to do a pleasant activity together), providing practical support (help minding their kids to give them time out) or linking them in with other health professionals.
Check whether they need urgent help
It’s possible this person is suffering more than you realise: they may be contemplating suicide or self-harm. Asking about suicidal thoughts does not worsen those thoughts, but instead can help ease distress.
It’s OK to ask them if they’re thinking about suicide, but try not to be judgemental (“You’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, are you?”). Listen to their responses without judgement and let them know you care and you’d like to help.
- Lifeline (24-hour crisis telephone counselling) 13 11 14
- Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
- Mental health crisis lines
If it is an emergency, or the person is at immediate risk of harm to themselves or others, call 000.
Encourage them to seek professional help.
We’re fortunate to be living in Australia, with access to high quality mental health care, resources and support services. But it can be overwhelming to know what and where to seek help. You can help by pointing the person in the right direction.
The first place to seek help is the general practitioner (GP). The GP can discuss treatment options (psychological support and/or medication), provide referrals to a mental health professional or arrange access to local support groups. You can help by encouraging your friend to make an appointment with their GP.
There are also online tools to check emotional health. These tools help indicate if a person’s stress, anxiety and depression levels are healthy or elevated.
What if they don’t want help?
People with mental health difficulties sometimes take years between first noticing the problem and seeking professional help. Research shows approximately one in three people experiencing mental health problems accesses treatment.
So even if they don’t want help now, your conversation may have started them thinking about getting help. You can try understanding what’s stopping them from seeking help and see if there’s anything you can do to help connect them to a professional. You don’t need to push this, but simply inviting the person to keep the options in mind and offering your ongoing support can be useful in the long run.
If appropriate, organise a time to check in with the person again to see how they’re doing after your conversation. You can also let the person know you’re around and they are always welcome to have a chat with you. Knowing someone is there for you can itself be a great source of emotional support
Anyone seeking support and information about mental health can contact beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36. For information about suicide and crisis support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 65
Senior Lecturer and MRFF/NHMRC Career Development Fellow, UNSW
Psychology Clinic Director, Clinical Psychologist, UNSW
Jill Newby receives funding from the Australian Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). She is affiliated with UNSW Sydney, and the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression (CRUfAD), which operates This Way Up. She is a member of the Australian Association for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Chien Hoong Gooi is affiliated with UNSW Sydney, Indepth Psychology and member of Australian Clinical Psychology Association, Australian Psychological Society and Australian Association for Cognitive and Behaviour Therapy.
UNSW Australia provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.