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Why you must say: R U OK?

Thursday the 10th of September is "RUOK?" day. In our current COVID climate this conversation has never been more critical. (visit the website for tips on how to have this conversation what to ask and how to provide support).

Simon Judkins, past president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), said his colleagues were reporting around a 30% increase in mental health presentations in emergency departments compared to a similar time last year (1).

Why is COVID creating a mental health pandemic?

It may seem intuitive to understand the link between COVID and mental health, but let me make it more visible.

Mental health and wellbeing is a complex system which is impacted by a number of variables. This is why in some instances, it can be very hard to manage. However, what we do know is that there are certain situations, reactions, chemicals, genetics, actions and mindsets that are more likely to trigger mental health concerns.

Our environment is a big trigger!

Research shows that a change in your environment can have a significant positive or negative effect on wellbeing - depending upon what that change is (3).

Let's talk more about how environmental conditions impact wellness. Risk factors for reduced wellbeing include; change that is outside of your usual control (viral pandemic, COVID), significant life event (sickness, redundancy, COVID), lack of of social and interpersonal supports (isolation from COVID), unknown and unexpected changes (COVID lockdown restrictions).

Almost all of the mental health 'watch-outs' or 'triggers' psychologists are trained to look for, COVID provides. COVID is a huge trigger that has the potential to manufacture a new pandemic - a mental health pandemic.

This is because our environment is far outside of our usual notions of control and this change has happened rapidly. We can't see who we want, when we want. We can't do what we want when we want. If you usually manage your stress and frustration by thrashing it out at the gym, going for a run, meeting a friend - you can't. If you are in Victoria, you can't exercise in the way you prefer (unless it is in 5kms of home). What if you prefer to catch up with a friend and vent your frustrations - well you can't meet them face to face. If you have a Zoom catch up instead, you then have to be careful what you say, as the rest of your family members are home and you don't want them to overhear something you may later regret!

I don't really need to go on about these situations, as we are all experiencing them - or at least know someone who is. The impact of these environmental changes is huge and these changes directly impact our mental health and wellbeing.

So, if our environment is forcing us to exist in ways that directly threatens our mental wellbeing, what can we do about it?

COVID or no COVID our environment is always changing and impacting us in various ways. What is different is the sheer number of people who are being directly impacted by their environment - so the R U OK conversation is critical. Statistics suggest that if you ask 5 people this question, at least one of them will actually be experiencing a mental illness at the moment (2).

So far this article seems a bit doom and gloom - where is the silver lining?

Well, we know that we can't control our environment, but we can control how we respond. This means we need to demonstrate significant resilience to respond in positive and helpful ways and we need to help others do the same. In some instances we will need to learn how to respond in more helpful ways.

Here are some tips:

  1. Create a coffee catch up on Zoom with friends where you play charades or something fun

  2. Get creative about your exercise regime and try learning a new skill while in lockdown

  3. Be compassionate towards others and recognise that everyone responds to these situations differently

  4. Give every person a 30min time out each day where they can know that they have quiet and alone time without disruptions

  5. Complete a FREE mental health check in and develop some strategies to support yourself using this online learning tool

  6. Give someone else a hand - giving/gifting/helping someone else is a great way to trigger the 'feel good' hormones in your body.

  7. Try and create a new routine (if in lockdown) which you can stick to each day. Change that routine on the weekends.

So, with that in mind - what tips do you have - what has worked for you. Add your suggestions below in the comments and share your wisdom with others. Let's not focus so much on what is not working and instead on what is working and that which we can control.


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