R U OK?
R U OK day (Sept 10), is a terrific day encouraging us all to look out for each other and “check-in” on how we’re traveling regarding our mental health and wellbeing. Obviously 2020 has thrown up unique challenges which at some point have tested us all in very different ways. With a common challenge being the ability to stay connected to loved ones, R U OK day this year has been very timely, and much needed.
Through Veretis, I’ve done many R U OK day style presentations across the years, both in direct relation to the day and in other capacities. These include helping managers to be “mental health aware managers” to support their team by recognising when different people may benefit from being asked how they are traveling (R U OK?). A common hesitation from participants is, “I don’t know how I would react if they said; no, I am not OK”. A very understandable concern given that the majority of people have never had any training in this area. They have little experience openly chatting with someone experiencing distress, and the Hollywood depiction that anyone with mental health issues is at risk of suicide. This is always a concern but more often than not. It’s simply not the case.
The key point to remember is that by asking R U OK? Or a similar question in the act of supporting someone is that you are not “solving their mental health issue” or “curing their suffering”. You’re only there to help and to begin a conversation that will encourage them to take action to overcome their challenges. This can be achieved through them engaging in their known support strategies, or maybe engaging in professional support. You always want to be fulfilling the role of the helper, not the rescuer.
Being a Helper
Being a helper is where we help the individual uncover the path forward. We spend most of the time “being with”, which includes listening, expressing empathy, asking open ended questions and reflecting on past experiences. Questions include, have you felt like this before? How did you manage to work through it last time? We spend considerably less time “doing with”, which involves offering strategies and suggestions for ways forward. The ideal time split is 80% being with and 20% doing with. To be honest, wrestling with this time split is one of the hardest things to do as a psychologist or as a friend.
As humans we all have a “righting reflex” within us. That want and desire to assist someone immediately when we see them in pain and know a way to reduce that pain. But remember emotions are pricks of things, they cloud our judgement, seek our validation and can be very crippling. The easily visible, minimal effort answer you see, may be invisible to the other person, or seem like an additional pressure on an already over loaded plate. You need to be with, not do with to assist someone to move forward. And sitting with someone, although it is daunting, it’s something we can all do.
Being a Rescuer
Rescuing on the other hand is where we take responsibility for the person’s “recovery” from the issue. We take the responsibility of talking to their manager, making an appointment, or anything else that will “get rid of the problem”. You can tell you’re rescuing, if during the conversation you can see yourself being the one walking away with the “to-do list”, not the other person. The issue with rescuing is that the outcomes are not positive, and at best will resolve the issue only momentarily.
You can disempower the person through disallowing them the opportunity to take action. You also deny the opportunity for the individual to learn from the experience and learn good coping skills. This leaves the person vulnerable to ending up in the same position again in the future, and not knowing how to work through it without relying on you.
Another major issue is that you put yourself at risk. Firstly the stress of trying to relieve someone’s distress can be immense, particularly if your immediate actions don’t seem to have any affect. Secondly, you can also become the villain by promising to do something and not coming through or evoking the change you said it would. This can result in the person feeling let down and potentially blaming you for the position they find themselves in.
The Line Between a Helper and a Rescuer
The line between a helper and a rescuer can be a tricky line to balance, as we want to see those we care about quickly move through any suffering. Remember that at the end of an R U OK style conversation, it should be the individual who you asked walking away with the “to-do list”. Your role is to simply help them uncover what can be on that list through exploring their situation with them and identifying any previous successful strategies or helpful resources.
This includes, support strategies such as friends, doctors, psychologists, or information resources. This takes the pressure off you to be the “golden answer” for the person. You don’t need to be, and it’s not the role of R U OK conversations. Just being with someone can be an immense help and something which may not help immediately, but plant the seed of change in the individual for the future.