Thursday was RU OK? Day. With the very best of intentions, people everywhere had their attention turned to mental health and suicide prevention. Many popped the question: Are you okay?
"Yeah nah, I'm doing okay," many answered, perhaps honestly, perhaps masking feelings of anxiousness, disconnection and loneliness. It can be hard to tell, especially with men who tend towards stoicism and keeping their inner feelings buttoned down.
As important as popping the question is listening to - and actually hearing - the answer. The RU OK? website lists four steps to take asking the question beyond the simple how-are-you-going greeting: Ask, Listen, Encourage Action and Check in. The website has tips for turning the question into a meaningful and constructive conversation.
Of course, we should be checking in with each other regularly, especially given the truly horrible year we've had. Bushfires, floods, pandemic. Very few would not have been touched in some way by this triumvirate of trauma.
After the fires, Australian Community Media organised sessions with counsellors for its staff. It was a relief to be able to discuss with a neutral person just how each of us had been affected by the fire emergency. Some of us opened up, some listened. We all benefited in different ways.
The sessions came just as the coronavirus crisis was emerging. Having lived through months of working from home - great in theory but it has some serious downsides, social isolation among them - it's probably time for some more counselling. In the interim, asking colleagues and friends if they're OK and listening to their answers has helped calm the emotional waters.
Some of us have become more connected than we were before being directed to work from home. We're picking up the phone to check in regularly. We're nurturing valuable friendships and generally looking after each other. We've realised that, now more than ever, asking the RU OK? question is critical. And we're accepting that answering the question honestly doesn't betray weakness but rather great inner strength.
A couple of years ago, I found myself traumatised during the Kingiman fire when Alan Tull, a helicopter pilot I'd just photographed, died in a crash. Although shocked, I thought I was fine until a paramedic asked how I was. I started bawling. It was OK to be upset, he said. "It's only human. I'd be worried if you weren't upset." Wise words indeed.