On 8 September, Australians across the country turned to their mates and asked RU OK?
It’s a simple question, with an assumption that the answer will be “yep” or “yes” or “yeah I’m good, thanks for asking”. But in reality, many of us are not ok, and we’re not ok on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, I love RU OK? Day, but we shouldn’t wait all year round to ask our mates if they’re doing ok. We should be doing this much more regularly.
The reality is that many of us are struggling with mental illness, and it’s not just depression and suicidal thoughts. We hear a lot about these two, but what about the rest? I’ve lived with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was eight, but that rarely gets a mention unless it’s a joke about cleaning hands. And OCD isn’t the only other condition out there.
I only have to look so far as the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (otherwise known as the DSM), which sits in my home office with over 1,000 pages dedicated to why we’re not ok.
Within the COVID pandemic emerged a mental health pandemic. Before the lockdowns and masks and 24/7 doom and gloom, we were holding it together. But that all fell down when we couldn’t go anywhere, or see anyone, and had to learn to juggle parenting, work, home, study and social lives from our makeshift home offices.
And for blokes who used to hit the gym, or the pub, the fishing spot or footy field, their outlet to work on themselves in the traditional “manly” ways was suddenly taken away.
COVID showed men that we’re actually a vulnerable species. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was socially conditioned to be the stereotypical boy. You know the ones. The boys that don’t cry, or show emotions, talk about feelings and show signs of weakness. This became what I knew, and what many boys around me knew.
But I didn’t learn how to engage with my emotions, talk about feelings, or recognise that I wasn’t doing okay. To numb a racing mind, I would turn to beer. To deal with anger, I would yell or scream. To reflect on any emotional turmoil that was going on in my life, I would bottle it up and feel a huge amount of guilt, shame and confusion as to how to deal with it. And you know what, I bet many blokes out there felt the same.
It wasn’t until I was 29 that I first went into a doctor’s clinic and uttered the words “I think I have mental health issues”. It was one of the hardest things I have had to do, but I am so glad I did it. This was ten years ago, and since then I have been on a rollercoaster ride of mental health recovery.
I’ve been on different medications, tried different therapies and spoken with psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health social workers and counsellors. I’ve been well and I’ve been unwell. But I’ve never regretted seeking help, I just wished I did it sooner!
Ten years ago, I challenged that social conditioning of being the tough guy. I challenged everything I had learned about what it means to be a man, by softening up. It turns out that I had been bottling things up for about 20 years.
I was numbing my pain with alcohol and pretending that everything was alright. But it wasn’t. I was hurting mentally. I was exhausted of living a double life, with the “I’m okay” mask hiding the “I’m far from okay” person on the inside. And it wasn’t until I got the guts to talk about mental health with my GP, that things started getting better. I found an outlet to speak about the weird and wonderful things that my mind thinks about. I stepped on a pathway of recovery and started improving the relationship I had with myself, and also those around me.
RU OK? Day got me reflecting on my journey, and I feel this is important to share, because a lot of men don’t talk about stuff like this. There are men out there who struggle to open up, but they want to. There are men out there that are violent because they don’t know how to channel their anger into something productive.
There are men out there that turn to suicide, because the pain of mental illness becomes too much to live with. COVID put a flame under these issues and now we’re in a constant mental health crisis.
So hear me fellas, it's okay to be not okay. It ain’t weak to speak and recovery is possible. I share my story with the hope that I inspire other men to share theirs. I use my lived experience of mental illness, to inform my mental health practice dedicated to supporting men to open up. And you can too, you just need to embrace the softness that’s already inside of you, put down that beer, and pick up the phone.
Call someone that you trust to have a good, honest chat about what’s really going on. And if you’re doing ok, maybe make that call to your mate and ask RU OK? pausing, then asking RU really OK?
Simon Rinne is a social worker and men’s mental health advocate.
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