Are you OK? How one question can save a life
There’s poignant and inspiring work happening around mental health in Shanghai. As your local newspaper, Shanghai Daily prides itself on being part of the vital effort to support the well-being of our community.
"Are you OK?” Three simple words form the most important question any of us might ever ask. But simple doesn’t mean easy. An estimated 800,000 people die by suicide every year — around one every 40 seconds — and for those that do, many more made an attempt.
How can we support those suffering in silence and protect our community from the devastating effects of suicide?
R U OK? is a suicide prevention program from Australia. Having teamed with Lifeline in 2016, they’ve brought a shared message of hope to China. I spoke with Adrian Hosler, Lifeline’s R U OK? program coordinator.
In a nutshell, what’s the aim of the collaboration between Lifeline and R U OK?
Everyone has the power to protect others through meaningful communication. Our program provides workshops, presentations, resources and events. It’s about empowering people to start conversations, make connections and understand how both protect us from mental health crises.
What leads someone to suicide?
Our program is based on the research of Dr Thomas Joiner, an American psychologist. He found three forces at play: believing you’re a burden, withstanding high levels of pain and feeling disconnected.
It’s the last point that the R U OK? program targets, by connecting people and helping long before they think about suicide. It’s also what Lifeline works to change by supporting those in distress via the helpline.
There are misunderstandings around suicide. What challenges do we face?
One is stigma, and we address this by doing away with judgemental language like “committed suicide.” It’s also a common misconception that asking someone about suicide leads to new or increased thoughts about it. It doesn’t, as research backs. Through R U OK?, we teach how to ask a potentially life-saving question, with the emotional and practical readiness it takes to listen.
What role does listening play in suicide prevention?
Listening is the non-verbal part of communication, but it’s an active process that involves being present. It’s not as easy as we might think, but holding a non-judgemental space for someone to share their story is powerful. We can’t expect to be good listeners all the time, but we can learn.
Last year taught us all a lot. Has COVID-19 impacted your work?
COVID-19 had a significant impact on mental health. It exposed the difficulties people have in everyday life and stretched others’ capacity to navigate this unique and troubling time. In 2020, calls to Lifeline increased threefold, as did the uptake of R U OK?.
COVID-19 reminds us how deeply humans crave connection.
You mention connection; why is it so important?
The mission of suicide prevention programs the world over is about connection. We use the word to describe the quality of relationships. Meaningful connection is when someone feels that others genuinely care about them.
Research repeatedly shows that people in connected communities are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and are therefore less likely to make an attempt on their life or die by suicide. This is because there’s an in-built network of support, trust and care.
How is R U OK? significant for Shanghai?
Our city is unique because the community is made up of people from all over the world. Many people living in Shanghai, and places like it, are separated from family, friends and familiarity. This can lead to miscommunication and disconnect, making it harder to manage everyday challenges. R U OK? empowers us to use the skills we have to create strong and lasting connections, both in our typical support networks and wider community.
Can you share an example?
Something I love about our workshops is seeing people connect. They exchange experiences and encourage each other to take on tough topics and master important skills.
Recently we had someone struggling with the idea of asking about suicidal thoughts. Their role-play partner was really encouraging, and by the end of the session, they were “support buddies.” These moments are a reminder that there’s no perfect way to talk about complex topics. It’s OK to fumble. There are people to learn from and lean on.
What advice do you have for those concerned about someone?
Remember, you won’t induce or create thoughts of suicide in anyone not considering it.
Check-in with yourself. Are you in the right headspace? Do you have time? Is it a good moment and setting? If you’re not best placed to have this conversation, who might be?
Be ready to listen without judgment or interruption. Check that you’ve understood and signal that you’re taking in what’s being said.
If someone has been low for over two weeks or is at risk of suicide, contact a mental health professional. Suggest a call to Lifeline and be present if needs be. It’s important that you’re supported, so think about your network. And remember, Lifeline is here for you too.