‘If a crisis is manifesting somewhere towards suicide and you have a conversation early on, you could change the path of that person,’ that’s what Brendan Maher (pictured left), former CEO of national suicide prevention charity R U OK?, says about uttering those three powerful words - are you OK?
Charity R U OK? was founded in 2009 by Gavin Larkin, whose much-loved father Barry Larkin committed suicide in 1995, leaving his family and friends distraught and with endless questions. Choosing to champion just one question – are you OK? - to honour his father and to try and protect other families from the pain his own endured, Gavin set about starting a national campaign focusing on identifying the signs that someone may not be OK and how to start a conversation. Sadly, Gavin lost his fight to cancer in 2011 but his legacy lives on thanks to a team of passionate supporters who continue to equip Australians with the skills and confidence needed to support those struggling with life.
We spoke with former CEO of R U OK?, Brendan Maher, to find out more about the charity’s powerful message.
Tell me more about the work R U OK? does
R U OK? is a health promotion organisation, so our core focus is on helping people to be confident enough to have a conversation about something they’re worried about. We do that through a whole range of settings: at workplaces, in schools and in community groups.
Do you do any work within the fitness and sporting community?
We have a number of people from a sporting background that are ambassadors for us. Sports clubs at both a community and high-performance level have been really good vehicles for getting the message out. Community clubs really embrace the R U OK? message, the CrossFit community in particular. We did a community challenge with a number of CrossFit gyms in the run-up to R U OK? Day last year and we’ll be doing that again with one of our ambassadors Khan Porter. It’s a message that really resonates well with clubs as joining a team and being involved in sport is often a great way to stay connected and become part of a community.
I think sports are a great connector, whether you’re a supporter or whether you’re an athlete, there’s a real kinsmanship in sport, from wearing a jumper to playing on a team. The physical and emotional health benefits of being connected and being part of something are really good. But it doesn’t mean sport is the miracle pill.
Do you come across a lot of mental health struggles in sports?
People who are participating in sports are doing something quite positive for their mental health in most cases. If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness or you’ve got clinical depression, stress or anxiety, quite often exercise and being part of a community are very good therapeutically. However, I certainly understand that often athletes try and transition at the end of their career to no longer being a professional sportsperson and that comes with its own unique challenges. There is incredible pressure at an elite level that would certainly test a person’s resilience and the competitive nature of sport can also have an impact.
How can you recognise when someone is not OK?
I think ill mental health aside, life’s challenges impact all of us in different ways. An emotional crisis could be anything from a relationship breakdown, grief, loss, losing a job, someone dying, getting physically unwell or injured; these might be the very obvious signs that someone’s not doing so well. I think the best thing that we can do at a peer-to-peer level is to try and get that person to open up, talk a little bit more about themselves and what might be going on.
At R U OK? we promote four steps to having a conversation and the first, before asking somebody whether they’re OK, is noticing a change in their behaviour. The person could have gone through a significant life event; in sport that might be directly related to the sport such as an injury; in a gym setting it might be someone who is usually at the gym like clockwork suddenly isn’t turning up; they might not be interested in the things they used to be passionate about or you may have noticed some changes in their general behaviour.
Next, find an appropriate time to take an interest and check in to see how they’re going. Ask ‘are you OK?’ Then it’s about listening, not trying to solve someone’s problem but to listen with an open mind and work with the silences. I think one of the biggest skills we can have as human beings is to listen to someone and not try to fix them or give them a list of things they need to do in order to fix themselves. That can put people under more pressure.
The third part of having a conversation is to encourage action. Try and get that person to consider pathways to try and improve their situation. If you’re talking about going to see a doctor, ask if there is anyone else you can talk to about this, ask what you can do to help them manage the load. Practical things, not answers, but suggestions and guidance.
Finally, it’s about checking in. Being authentic in terms of offering someone support is about fully checking in with them, seeing how they’re going and taking an ongoing interest – not owning their problem or taking their problems on, but keeping an eye on them. Follow up a week or so later and ask how are you doing? Did you get to the doctor? Have you put some things in place?
If you find someone who’s really distressed, it might be too big of a conversation for you. It might be that person needs to go to a doctor or even the hospital if they’re very, very distressed, or to call Lifeline. Talk to the people around that person and let them know that you’re worried. It’s a social scaffolding really and that’s one of the important distinctions about R U OK?, we’re not talking to the person who needs help, we’re talking to the people around that person. We’re building and strengthening that social and peer-to-peer support so that we are all better equipped and more empowered to support someone we’re worried about.
What has the charity got planned for R U OK? Day this year?
In the lead up to R U OK? Day we are heading around the country on our Conservation Convoy. We’ve got four branded vehicles, which also align with the four steps to having a conversation, and we’ve got 26 stops starting in Geelong then out to Tassie, through South Australia, WA, the Northern Territory, Queensland, ACT and finally finishing in New South Wales on R U OK? Day. Each of these events is based on the community all with the idea of reinforcing the four steps to having a conversation.
R U OK? Day 2018 takes place on Thursday 13th September. If you want to get involved with R U OK?, make a donation or would like to attend an event, visit www.ruok.org.au.
If you know someone who is struggling, or you are facing difficulties yourself, you can reach out to any one of these charities for help and advice:
- R U OK?
- Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
- Black Dog Institute
- Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
- GriefLine - 1300 845 745
- Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800