This is, I think, my real beef with R U OK day, especially in 2020. The onus has been placed on the community to save lives that they’re not equipped to save. It’s not an awareness campaign anymore. We know mental health is important. We know that mental illness is a wide-reaching problem, especially in a year that has been particularly awful for a particularly large number of people. But we’re in no better a position to tackle it than we were in 2009 when the charity launched. We’re told to listen and then encourage people towards doctors and psychologists who are qualified. We’re told to remind them of their 10 subsidised therapy appointments (fewer than they had in 2009), and leave it to them to discover that the subsidy will probably still leave them with a $30-80 gap per session and if they are suicidal, they might need to go to counselling more than once a month. Maybe, if they already have a suicide plan and we’re a really good friend, we’ll drive them to the hospital and sit with them for hours, making sure they don’t give up while waiting to be assessed by an overworked and under-resourced crisis team. If things are really bad, they might be admitted for three days and sent home again, or referred to a long waiting list for an expensive stint in a private hospital.
Don’t get me wrong, R U OK? day is born of noble sentiment. The people who participate are (mostly) heartfelt and truly willing to listen and help in whatever way they can. This kind of willingness from ordinary people to help their friends is what saved my life (and that of the daughter whose birthday it is today). But it’s been a long journey back from the brink, one that has cost me tens of thousands in out-of-pocket healthcare costs that I was lucky to be able to pay. It’s been a journey involving too many days and weeks and months hanging on by a thread while waiting for the next available appointment or admission. It’s required some of those same friends and family members to literally take time off work and move into my house to babysit me and make sure I don’t go buying more blades.
By asking the question, people are signalling to their friends how much they love and care about them. In a year where many feel fragile, being reminded of that love is a wonderful thing. Encouraging people to reach out for support is a good thing. But we should all be aware that too often, the support we’re referring people to is not accessible. And when the day is over and the yellow posters have been taken down, there is so much more that still needs to be done - not in the community, but in the system.