4 Tips on How to Ask Someone if They're Okay

Mental Health

Tammy George

Two young women hugging each other after asking if they're okay.

Since 2009, R U OK? Day has been successful at attracting media attention each year, and most Australians could say that they’ve heard of the campaign. Every Australian adult should be able to participate by asking a friend or family member if they’re ok.

After losing his father to suicide in 1995, Gavin Larkin wanted to equip Australians with the skills and confidence to support those around them who may be struggling, which led to the creation of R U OK? - a suicide prevention organisation. Gavin wanted to honour his father and protect other families from enduring the same grief that he had.  

It’s estimated that around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and that 45% of all people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In Australia, over 3,000 people lost their life to suicide in 2020 - around eight people every day.

R U OK? has helped to raise awareness of many mental health struggles that people face that may lead to suicide. R U OK? Day, which lands on the second Thursday of September every year, has encouraged Australians to have life-saving conversations. Many people may feel uncomfortable initiating discussions like this, though the following tips should help to prepare you for the hard-hitting conversations that you may need to have with a friend or loved one at any time of the year.

Two friends holding hands as they talk about if they're okay.

#1 Know What You’re Going to Say

Asking someone if they’re okay sounds simple enough, but you need to be prepared for the whole conversation.

Start with a relaxed friendly question like ‘how are you going?’. They may give a standard answer, such as ‘fine thanks’, but if you want to ask again, you can mention that you’re concerned about them because they haven’t been their usual self. If they confirm that they’re okay, don’t try to push them into a conversation or be critical. They may not be ready to talk now but may come back to you after thinking about what they want to tell you. Let them know that you’re available if they ever want to talk.

If the person says ‘no, I’m not ok’, will you know what to say next? It’s important that you don’t try to fix their problem. Chances are they aren’t looking for someone to fix it on the spot, they may just want to talk about it. Instead, offer to help them find a solution. You could offer to go with them to see their GP or find a support line if they want to talk to a trained professional. Tell them you can see them more regularly for a catch-up or talk on the phone if face-to-face isn’t possible.

Don’t dismiss what they say. Everyone thinks and feels differently. Just because their situation doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, they may see it differently. Just acknowledge that they have been having a rough time and don’t compare your situation to theirs.

For more information, see the R U OK? Conversation Guide.

One colleague comforting another as he asks how they are.

#2 Be Prepared to Listen 

You might have plenty of questions, but it’s important to let them talk. The questions you ask should be more around how they feel and how long they have felt that way, rather than details of situations or examples they may recount. Show that you’re actively listening by repeating what they say in your own words.

Don’t try to rush the conversation. This is a time when they may need to think before they speak, so don’t try to fill what may feel like awkward pauses. They will let you know when they have finished speaking and it’s time for you to respond.

#3 Choose Your Time

Before asking the question, make sure you have time to give. If you have to rush off in ten minutes or you’re distracted with something and can’t give someone your full attention, don’t ask the question yet. Wait until you have enough time and a clear head so that you can listen, rephrase what they have said and think about how to respond.


#4 Choose Your Place

People are unlikely to open up a conversation if the setting isn’t right. If there is a risk that a third person will enter the room or the conversation may be overheard, it’s probably not the best place. Offer to catch up for a drink somewhere private or that you both go for a walk before you ask.

#5 Follow Up

Don’t leave it as a once-off conversation - stay in touch in the weeks that follow. An easy way to start the conversation is to say you’ve been thinking of them and ask how they’re going.

Actively listen again if they want to talk more. Encourage them to take action if they’ve been feeling down for more than two weeks. Offer to help with making an appointment to see a professional. When a person is feeling low or overwhelmed, making a phone call can be hard. Tell them you will do what you can to help.

Lady asking her friend if they're okay with a simple phone call.

If they still haven’t acted on any suggestions you discussed since the last conversation, don’t be critical. Not everyone is ready to take the next step straight away. They may have been feeling better after talking about it with you or they’ve taken the time to think about their situation. However, if you’re very concerned about their mental health and think they need crisis support, suggest they call Lifeline.

Remember to stay in touch. Knowing someone is willing to take the time and concern for them can make a difference.

Resources & Support

Take a look at some of the resources and support services available in Australia below, whether you need access to them for yourself or you’re looking at getting help for a friend:

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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