Why You Should Think Before You Ask ‘R U OK’ Today

Anna Spargo-Ryan asks whether awareness days designed to help mental health sufferers might have the potential to do harm as well as good, speaking from the point of view of someone with a long-term mental illness, who suffers from anxiety and depression. She explains why opening conversations you’re not prepared, or equipped, to continue (for longer than a day) is something we should all think carefully about.

Monday was World Suicide Prevention Day. That’s a day when people around the world prevent suicide, I guess. Allegedly. And today is R U OK? Day. Great. Awareness of mental health issues is very important. And I think these days are better than nothing. I do, I promise.

But at the same time, they leave some people wide, wide, wide open, there in their homes with thoughts they weren’t ready to have or don’t know what to do with. I just. I feel like we’re being irresponsible. Glamourising. Maybe even fetishising. And self-flagellating. Doing our bit. Donating ten bucks to the Smith Family. Buying a goat from Oxfam. Asking our friends if they feel bad. Buying a RCH raffle ticket.

Besides anxiety, which is obviously shit, and depression, which is obviously tedious, I have a long-term, incurable, psychotic mental illness. I don’t talk about it because it makes me desperately, hopelessly sad. When you come to me and ask if I’m feeling suicidal, chances are I’m not. Chances are I’m feeling moderate-to-good. But then you remind me. Not just that I might be feeling bad, but that you can’t help me with whatever you say next. Out of the goodness of your heart, bless you, you ask me if I’m okay, and I say, ‘Well I thought I was, but come to think of it, not really.’ And you say, ‘You should see someone.’ And I say, ‘I’m already seeing someone. They can’t fix me.’ but by then you are on to the next day, which I wanted to look up but it’s September 11 so obviously that’s impossible to Google. But maybe it’s Talk Like an Infant Day or Make Friends with a Goat Day.

And here I am alone in my lounge room, going, ‘Shit, you know what? I thought I was doing all right. Not amazingly. A bit up and down. But this World Suicide Prevention Day has got me thinking. Maybe I’m not okay. Maybe I am suicidal.’

Suddenly, there are triggers everywhere. There are people highlighting the fact that there is futility and meaningless in the world. There are people asking you to give voice to those feelings that you haven’t dared give life to because you’re not ready to just yet. There are people giving you a platform and an audience to talk about how absolutely miserable everything is and then, funny, it turns out they don’t know the next step. That actually, all the guides say is to tell their friends to ‘speak to someone’. And you’re there, shouting into oblivion, ‘I HAVE seen someone! What do I do when that doesn’t make me BETTER?’ And suddenly the futility is compounded, and you’re there treading water on your own.

And your mate is at home, patting himself on the back for being so aware and thoughtful. Because he is, truly. He’s doing what the Day has told him to do. Ask your mates if they’re okay, and if they say they’re not, give them this leaflet. But suicide is lonely, and depression is lonely, and anxiety is lonely. None of these things are one day a year deals. When your mate wakes up tomorrow and goes to make friends with a goat, you will still be there with your depression and maybe you’ll wonder how long it is until another day that will give your mate cause to ask you how you are.

And look, maybe you’ll get up and think, hey, I’m going to go and see my doctor and get a Mental Health Care Plan, now with 10 sessions instead of 16 and then 12. I think that’s bloody great. If you can find the wherewithal to go to a specialist and get treatment and then feel better, or cured, or fixed, then I am beyond pleased for you. Truly, I am. You are also very, very lucky. And you are the person for whom these days are designed. The curable. The low-moderate.

I think there is some truth to the idea that someone who wants to commit suicide will eventually, probably, in all likelihood commit suicide. My grandfather tried twice: one time he wasn’t successful, so the people around him rallied to support him. The next time, he was successful. If someone had asked him if he was feeling bad, because it was World Suicide Prevention Day and so They Probably Should, he might have opened up about it. He might have said that yes, frankly, he was feeling a touch suicidal. And the inexperienced and the naive and the untrained would have told him to ‘see someone’. Or ‘good on you for taking the first step’. And he would have realised that he had already taken the first step, and he had already seen someone, and he still felt suicidal. And chances are, almost assuredly, he would have gone on to commit suicide.

For most people, unless they are experiencing a temporary mental break like a psychotic episode, thoughts of suicide are not sudden and fleeting. Most people who commit suicide don’t get up one morning and think, ‘Well I’ve been fine until now, but I think it’s about time I died.’ They don’t. For most people who commit suicide, it has been a process of thinking and planning and thinking and planning. And by the same token, interrupting it with a day of awareness may not be enough to break that lengthy cycle of thinking and planning.

I fear for those who awaken feelings they didn’t want to have, or who think lucidly and consciously about suicide without any support, or who think someone maybe, finally, just in time gives a shit, only to find out that they’ve forgotten about it by the time the next cause comes along. Sorry, can’t drag myself down with your talk of suicide, I’m having enough trouble going without alcohol for a month!

Please be careful and considered with the way you talk about suicide. Talking about it can be a trigger in and of itself. Do you know what to do next?

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