Thursday is RU OK Day, an initiative intended to raise awareness about suicide and depression. I actually think the concept is excellent and raising knowledge and promoting discussion around mental health and suicide prevention is a really good and useful thing which can save lives. I do have a few reservations about RU OK Day though, from my twin perspectives as an autistic advocate and a person with mental illness.
I was having a conversation with a friend who is very knowledgeable in these areas and we both agreed to some reservations about RU OK Day.
Our first concern was about the almost trite nature of it. People asking ‘Hi, RU OK?’ In the same manner as they would ask after your activities on the weekend or discuss the weather. If you actually aren’t OK this can be more unhelpful than the person saying nothing at all.
Another concern is around how prepared people are to respond if someone says they are not OK. It is almost like those promoting RU OK day didn’t get that far in their thinking but it is a significant issue. If someone gives the opportunity to share difficult mental health experiences but then doesn’t know what to do the information it is unhelpful and can make things worse.
People who have alexithymia (emotion blindness) – which includes a lot of autistic people – may struggle to know whether they are OK or not. Or if they are not OK they may not know how to articulate it, meaning that the RU OK question can do more harm than good. It is bad enough having doctors ask you how you feel when you have alexithymia, without work colleagues and fellow students (or whoever) adding to the confusion!
Another difficult element of RU OK Day is that is happens once a year. Everyone is thinking about mental health awareness and suicide prevention, which is fantastic, but at other times there is much less focus. The conversations around mental health and suicide prevention need to be happening all the time, not just one day in September.
Some people find the idea of having a frank conversation about issues like suicide quite invasive, especially when it comes from someone they don’t view in a mental health support kind of context, like their boss or teacher. It is important to be aware of people’s privacy and space and not launch into uncomfortable conversations simply because someone saw a poster or watched a video. Some people have experienced stigma for mental health issues and may be reluctant to share their story and this needs to be respected.
The day also doesn’t really go very far in addressing the broader societal issues around mental health. It can be seen as almost superficial in this respect. It does not address the deeper issues around mental health services and access which are a problem for so many of us. Of course that is OK and not every initiative has to go to addressing the deeper problems. However, some people only know about RU OK Day in terms of mental health awareness and promotion. The level of awareness of mental health issues needs to go beyond just that one thing.
Despite these challenges I have seen some great ways of marking RU OK Day which I think are really helpful. For example I was in a work team once and we had a morning tea and a very genuine conversation about experiences of suicidal thinking and depression. I was a newish member of the team and it was quite confronting but it was also really helpful and supportive and I felt it brought the team together. We shared things which were hard but it led to more cohesion and closer relationships. I think the conversations around RU OK Day really need to be genuine in that way, otherwise it can be counterproductive and largely meaningless.
I don’t want to complain about what is essentially a good initiative but I think we need to be aware that there are some challenges related to RU OK Day and keep these in mind.
I hope that those who are not OK can access positive support and helpful assistance on Thursday and on every other day too. And in answer to whether I am OK, I am getting there. I am usually getting there actually. My mental health is rather fraught and I have a lot of anxiety, mood issues and psychotic symptoms so my life is pretty much all about managing all that and making sure I am able to keep doing all the good things I do.