RUOK Day: Tuning in with meaning

September 11th is RUOK Day. RUOK? is a not-for-profit organisation whose vision is a world where we're all connected and protected from suicide.

Thus RUOK’s mission is to encourage everyone to regularly and meaningfully ask "Are you ok?" 
How are you doing, really?
But what does it mean to enquire about another person’s wellbeing in a meaningful way?  (Hint:  it doesn’t mean doing it while you are texting, watching telly, or playing games on your tablet!).  In the developed world, we find it all too easy to ask how another person is without actually taking in the response.  Has anyone ever enquired about your wellbeing in the same manner as Tom below? 
Tom:  “How are you, George?”
George:  “Terrible.”
Tom:  “Great!  Now I just wanted to tell you about . . . “
Why ask RUOK?  The suicide stats 
The founders of the RUOK program understand that sometimes even a single conversation in which the asker conveys genuine interest and caring in the other person may prevent a suicide.  Our national statistics around suicide and suicide attempts – the ultimate expression of feeling that one has not been met in a meaningful way – argue for a deeper engagement with others than what we often achieve.  An estimated 65,000 Australians attempt suicide in a 12-month period, with an average of 2320 people suiciding every year.  Sadly, around 45 percent of Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime, while 20 percent are affected every year.
What it’s all about:  Mental health social support
Many mental health experts see programs such as the RUOK campaign as essential to turning around these grim statistics; the effort belongs to a much larger movement:  that of mental health social support.  There is no controversy about it.  Countless studies are in agreement, with dovetailing results which acknowledge the strong relationship between wellbeing and having support.  Social support:

  • Offers the supported person positive emotions, a sense of self-worth, and predictability 
  • Buffers people from stress; 
  • Strengthens one’s self-esteem and capacity for effectiveness through the perception that one matters 
  • Makes problem-solving easier 
  • Gives the helpee hope, which is related to quality of life 
  • Increases by around 50% the willingness to obtain needed medical care when the support is offered by one’s partner
  • Decreases utilisation of mental health services by around 60%  when emotional support is given by one’s partner 

Helps young people to cope with the effects of violence by:

  • Empathising with their experience of harm
  • Reducing feelings of vulnerability
  • Enhancing feelings of being “OK” and the ability to act effectively 

Offering social support:  the basics
But here’s the $64,000 question:  how, exactly, do we offer social support?  It has been defined as “the availability of one or more persons who can listen sympathetically when an individual is having problems and can provide indications of caring and acceptance”.  Let’s be honest about it upfront:  it is possible to offer support and do it badly, resulting in helpees wishing they’d never been “helped”!  In future posts, we’ll be talking a bit more about that, and about the tell-tale signs that someone is struggling and may need professional assistance.  But for today we are issuing a challenge.  How about celebrating RUOK? Day in this way:  choose three people in your life and truly tune in, offering them indications of caring and acceptance by deeply noticing them. This entails observing aspects such as:

  • Speech. What is the person’s tone of voice:  calm or anxious, stressed or subdued?  Is there anything about the person’s speech that suggests distress or depression:  a lack of clarity in speech, general disinterest, or agitation or anxiety? 
  • Clothing. Have you noticed any changes in the way of dressing, the clothing chosen, or its appropriateness to the present situation? Is the clothing “out-of-character” for this person? 
  • Body, posture, and way of walking.  What can you detect from the person’s stance and movement?  Do they walk with confidence, or in a way that indicates a lack of drive?
  • Bodily movements. Is there fidgeting or restlessness? Or lethargy and lack of animation?
  • Facial expressions. What is their eye contact like?  Is your gaze returned? Is there appropriate facial contact?  Is the person’s gaze averted or facial and eye contact avoided?   Is there noticeable disinterest?  Does their face seem to show emotions being suppressed?
  • Feeling in you. Perhaps you notice that you feel somewhat depressed in this person’s company. These emotions may be your own, but on the other hand this person may trigger this reaction in others as well, and therefore what is happening in you is a clue to problems in their life and relationships.
  • General impressions. Is this person in touch with reality? Are they aware of their surroundings, time of day, and the weather? Are there any difficulties with memory, attention or concentration?

Good luck!  Have a meaningful RUOK Day!

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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