I wasn’t going to write about R U OK day. I’d decided that my opinion on it, being somewhat dubious, was probably not needed. But then I remembered a spoken word poem by Taylor Mali, and I realised I did want to say something:
I agree. Depression is a type of fire. It’s unpredictable—often appearing seemingly without warning, fanned and exacerbated by the most unlikely things. Just as the smallest spark or the simple act of hay drying can light a flame, so that extra glass to wash can be the very last thing to bear.
Depression is also esoteric. It is often something very private and hidden, something not necessarily able to be understood. Sure, like any disease it has shared symptoms, but these don’t manifest the same way, or even in the same context for everyone. There’s no visible scar or magic marker of the depressed. And, just like in a fire, the person themselves often gets lost among the smoke and fog of the feelings, unable to fight from beneath the heaviness that surrounds them.
They are both all consuming—fire and depression—they take on a course of their own, leaving so much destruction in their wake. Days of depression can turn into weeks of non-functioning. The thought of leaving your bed seems agonising, or maybe the thought of staying in bed is worse. There’s no set rule, no logical path.
And that’s why I’m a little scared about R U Ok day. Wabi and I discussed this briefly the other day. You see, while I think we need to talk about suicide and depression. And we certainly need to provide channels of help for those that want it, we also need to make sure that the right kind of help is there and, even more importantly, we’re ready to deal with the answer.
If your best friend confessed to having suicidal thoughts would you be ready to deal with that? Have you thought about how you would react? Would you know what to say and what help to get them? Even having been through it myself, I’m not sure I would, because the one thing I know for sure is that everyone hurts differently. There’s no sure-fire answer. Maybe your friend would want professional help, maybe meds, or maybe they’d just simply want to know people care.
While there’s some great information and advice on the R U OK website, I wonder about how many people have viewed the website and thought about the impact of the question. Conversely, how many people have simply seen Hugh Jackman talking about R U OK and followed his suggestion immediately—sending a text, or calling a friend without acknowledging the seriousness of the question?
The one thing that is definite is that nobody with depression wants panic. Just like in a fire, there has to be calm. Can you assure that response? If you can’t, maybe re-think whether you’re the right person to ask the question.
I’m absolutely all for anything that brings depression and mental illness further into the light of society, but this needs to be something we talk about all year—every day, of every month—not simply during a short campaign for a token day. It’s over for this year and now the regular TV ad slot is gone, and there’s not one word about it on the radio. That won’t do. It certainly won’t encourage people with depression to speak up, because the hardest thing can simply be believing they are worth helping.
Most importantly, and what I think needs to be stressed more in any mental illness campaign, is the realisation that depression is real—mentally and physically—but so is the person suffering from it, and oftentimes they just want to feel ‘normal’ again. Asking the question or not, if we can give friends with depression more moments of light than dark, that’s a start. Because, in the end, it’s not just about putting out the fire, it’s about not fanning the flames.