R U OK?: Navigating a conversation about mental health effectively

two women speaking to each other about mental health

Tom Hounslow

Posted September 07, 2022

Asking 'R U OK?' is an important, but often difficult, question. Discover the best strategies for how to approach the conversation. 

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in July of 2022 revealed that more than one in five Australians (21.4 per cent) had experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life, whether that be a panic disorder, PTSD, alcohol or drug dependence, depression, or any other mental illness.

While these figures are concerning, the  reality is that the real-world figures are much higher with an unidentifiable cohort either not reporting their illness, or keeping it concealed. There is another group of unreported people who also are completely unaware of their illness.

This is where R U OK? Day becomes so important. It’s a day to not only acknowledge mental health as an issue in our society, but normalising mental health as a topic of conversation. One of the best ways to support someone struggling with their mental health, is by simply voicing your support and reaching out.

By simply asking ‘R U OK?’ to someone in need can change their life.

Before reaching out to your family member, friend, or co-worker, there are a few pivotal things you need to understand. 

two women talking about mental health

Simply asking "R U OK?" at the right time can change someone's life. Image: Getty


How to discuss mental health effectively

Checking in on someone’s mental health isn’t an exercise that can be taken lightly. Discussing someone’s mental health is not only a deeply private, personal, and vulnerable conversation, but is one that can do more harm than good if not conducted in the right way.

There are three key questions you need to ask yourself before you reach out: 

Are you ready to discuss mental health?

Talking about mental health issues and being a supportive counterpart can add stress and could potentially be traumatic to the person listening. Before you ask R U OK?, ask yourself ‘am I OK?’

Being in a positive and stable emotional state is important, and if you don’t feel you are able to be an effective and supportive listener, it could be for the better if you don’t reach out directly – not just for the betterment of the other person, but yourself as well.

If you feel that you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14

Are you prepared to talk about mental health?

Asking R U OK? can result in a multitude of responses: appreciation, gratitude, and comfort; but it can also be received with offence, malice, and a feeling of intrusion.

Consider how you would respond to any of these scenarios before reaching out.

It’s also important that you know that you can’t ‘fix’ whatever issue is about to arise, or that the person may not want to talk about it with you. 

Choosing the right time and place

They say that there is a time and a place for everything, and having a serious and vulnerable conversation is no exception.

Make sure that when you reach out, that you have enough time to have a decent conversation – not the sort of thing to ask during a 30-second ride in the elevator.

Consider your surroundings as well. Discussing deeply private matters in the workplace, for example, may not be received well. Pick your moment when you’re both in a comfortable, private setting that’s free of distraction. 


two men talking about mental health on a staircase

Asking your friend if they're okay is a great way to start a conversation about mental health. Image: Getty


Navigating a conversation about mental health

If you feel you are prepared, the timing is appropriate, and you have the linguistic and emotional tools needed to be an effective listener, there are a few things that should be covered in the conversation.

Asking R U OK?

Start the conversation naturally with genuine intrigue. “How are you going?” or “You seem quiet today. Is everything okay?” are examples of natural conversation. Asking “how is your mental health?” feels awkward and forced, and is unlikely to be received positively.

Avoid confrontation at all costs. If the person doesn’t want to discuss their personal issues with you, be supportive and offer help if they ever feel they need it.

Effective listening

Everyone is different, and whatever response you receive - no matter how odd you may think it is – should be received with gravitas and sympathy. 

Listening is also about more than being silent. Show that you are listening by repeating what you’ve heard in your own words.

Opening open questions such as “how does that make you feel?” or simply “why?” encourages conversation and leads to better understanding. Closed questions such as “when did that start” and “do you feel better” can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and can destroy any momentum the conversation had.

Encourage action

If the person you are speaking with has confided in you, encourage them to consider what options they have at their disposal: “what support do you need?” or “how do you plan to make things better?” are examples of thought-provoking questions.

If you are the person you are speaking with feel they need professional help going forward, there are numerous avenues that can be explored including speaking to a mental health professional, a GP or health practitioner, or a free specialised mental health service such as Lifeline.

Follow up and check-in

Consider putting a reminder in your (private) calendar to follow up with the person you spoke with and see how they have progressed. If matters have gotten worse, encourage them to seek professional help as soon as possible.


If you or someone you know feels overwhelmed or in need of support,
please contact  Lifeline  on 13 11 14 at any time.