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How to begin a conversation about mental health

06 September 2021


Find out about R U OK Day and learn how to spot the signs someone is not coping and start a conversation about mental health. Why? To support family, friends and community when they need it.

COVID outbreaks, prolonged lockdowns, financial strains, job insecurity and isolation, these events have made the need for us to normalise conversations and be open about our mental health greater than ever.

A June 2021 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, looking at household impacts of COVID-19 observed that "one in five (20%) Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the last four weeks." This distress was observed more prominently amongst Australians 18-34, with almost one in four (23%) women experiencing high levels of psychological distress compared with 17% of men.

These startling statistics signify the mental health and wellbeing struggles we’re experiencing. What can we do to support our family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues during these particularly troubling and often stressful times?

What is R U OK?

R U OK is a harm prevention not-for-profit. The organisation encourages people to stay connected and have conversations with others to help through difficult times in their lives. R U OK’s campaigns have played a vital role in creating awareness and reducing the stigma associated with mental health.

Providing free resources, it also holds events to equip people with the tools to recognise the signs of distress and start the conversations that can help support someone who may be unravelling. The charity also has an ambassador program through which trained volunteers share their experiences with mental health.

R U OK Day is an annual campaign that takes in September. This years it’s on Thursday, 9 September. The message: 'Are they really OK? Ask them today,' aims to encourage people to think about who in their life might need to be asked how they're really going and how to make a moment meaningful by asking them, "are you OK?"

Sometimes the signs of mental distress are evident, but often it’s not always the case. We all erect facades for whatever reason and often a caring question is all that’s needed to prompt an important conversation.

Signs someone may not be coping?

According to research conducted by R U OK, "Approximately two-thirds of people (63%) are not confident they know the signs that someone might be struggling with life." So, what should we look for?

Start taking note of what people are saying, their behaviours and what is going on in their lives that may be causing distress. Think of your own situation and put yourself in their shoes – if it’s worrying you, it’s probably worrying them.

People may come across as unusually confused or irrational, moody, lonely, worried about the future or suffering from low self-esteem. You might notice a subtle change in their behaviour: in the form of mood swings, a lack of motivation, an inability to concentrate, insomnia or erratic sleep patterns, or perhaps you’ve noticed them becoming more withdrawn or even reckless.

People are also prone to dropping hints online or on social media. Take note when you observe unusual posts or changes to online behaviour.

Pay attention to what is happening in their lives — are they dealing with relationship issues, health issues, work stress, financial struggles, or perhaps caving in under the pressure of family life in lockdown.

How to ask the question and start the conversation?

R U OK has many excellent resources available to help navigate these sometimes-tricky conversations, but here are a few steps to follow.

Getting ready

A good place to start is to check in with your headspace, ensuring that you are in a strong position to have the conversation. Do you have the time and energy that your friend, family member or colleague may need? Do you feel prepared for their answer or response, whether good or bad? Do you understand that you can't fix their problems?

Ask, are you okay?

Pick a private and safe space to have the conversation and approach it in a relaxed and friendly manner. Ask questions like "How are you going?" or "What's been happening?" and mention anything you might have observed that has made you concerned. If they’re closed off to the conversation, be as understanding as possible and offer your help if they ever want to chat.


You aren't expected to have the answers or fix their problems. Merely lending your ear, taking what they say seriously and listening without judgement is often all it takes.

Encourage action

Discuss how they have coped with situations in the past, ask how they would like to be supported and if their mental health is wavering, encourage them to seek professional help.


As struggles are often ongoing, make sure to check in to see how they are doing and if they need any further support.

Supporting the mental wellbeing of you and your family

No doubt, these conversations are as important as ever but so is keeping an eye on your mental health. Lockdown has undoubtedly put a strain on our mental wellbeing with all the challenges of working from home whilst contending with family life in isolation.

Starting a conversation around the dinner table, checking in to see how everyone is doing and how you can better support each other is a great strategy.

Another organisation providing parents with vital family, career and wellbeing services is Parents at Work. Their membership service is ideal for parents looking to better navigate these turbulent times with a range of resources and webinars, including 'Digital Wellbeing for Children', 'Managing Mental Wellbeing for You and Your Family' and 'Maintain Motivation, Connection and Wellbeing while Working from Home.'

Do you want to help break the stigma around mental health and cultivate a sense of connection and belonging within your family, community, and workplace? This September, why not start the conversation, ask the question, "Are you really okay?" and normalise conversations about mental wellbeing.

Look out for the signs. Trust when something feels a little off and, even if things appear fine on the outside, remember that asking those three little words, can make all the difference.


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