Suicide prevention: the trouble with RUOK?

Suicide prevention is a worthy undertaking. Much credit must be given to those who endeavour to raise the profile of suicide prevention and its correlate, mental health promotion.

The RUOK? campaign that seeks to raise community awareness and prevent possible suicides through the medium of social connection is a worthy endeavour. Connection is a powerful medium to prevent possible suicides. Simply asking Are you OK? conceivably offers an experience of caring that may make a positive difference for a person contemplating suicide.

However, those who are familiar with my work will know how I dislike the use of questions when we are endeavouring to establish a meaningful connection. Though questions can offer an experience of interest and care, they imply that the asker does not know what the person being asked is experiencing. They can offer the recipient of the question the experience that others do not know what they are going through.

Rather, I prefer statements that communicate understanding. Statements that communicate understanding offer an experience of interest, care and validation. The recipient of a statement of understanding has the experience that their difficulties are worthy of the interest of others. They feel worthy. They feel validated.

Validation should be viewed as an inoculation against depression.

Next time you think to ask a person RUOK? take a moment to consider how they look and sound and what you know of their circumstances. If you consider that they are not OK say something like you look like something is bothering you. Such a simple statement of understanding is often a powerful basis for a meaningful conversation and meaningful connection. You might even say you look like [whatever you guess it is] is bothering you.

If you do ask RUOK, pay attention to how the person responds and don’t be afraid to say you don’t seem OK. In fact, it sounds to me like something is bothering you.

Used in these ways, statements of understanding (referred to as verbalising understanding in my books and other publications) have the potential to establish a meaningful connection of depth and quality that can change a life.