Why RU OK Day Did Not Make Me Feel OK

Any time an official “day” is proclaimed, it ends up in celebration. No matter how much we try to stay solemn and reflective on Anzac Day, a party atmosphere ends up sneaking in sometime in the late afternoon. Recently, it was International Endangered Species Day, which is apparently not a day to panic about the global extinction crisis and furiously brainstorm ideas to reverse the creeping catastrophe, but rather a day for politicians to pose for smiling photos with cute animals.

RU OK Day is no different to any other. It purports to be a day for reaching out to our fellow human beings and trying to be better in our approach to mental illness, but like every other Day, it ends up being a celebration.

Not a celebration of the mentally ill, mind you. That’d be a bit off-putting, wouldn’t it? No, RU OK Day is a celebration of the wonderful compassion and boundless kindness of the mentally healthy. It is a day to declare yourself a faithful ally. It is a day to congratulate yourself for how beautiful a person you are. It is a day to make your back ache from self-applied pats.

This might not be so bad in itself – people strutting about preening over how compassionate they are doesn’t help anyone, but I guess it can’t do all that much harm either – but it goes further than the individual. RU OK Day isn’t just a chance for people, on their own, to celebrate their goodness: it’s a day where the whole country gets to celebrate, as a unit. The government, the community, the nation, all throw confetti in the air and shout yippee over how well they’re dealing with mental health. Look at us! Here in Australia we look after our mentally ill folks – why, we have a whole DAY set aside just for checking up on them!

You might’ve noticed this seems to mean a lot to me. It does, and for once my irritation is not simply borne of being a first-world op-ed writer with too much time on his hands. This is personal, because the fact is…I’m not OK.

I mean, look, I’m OK. Don’t worry. I’m fine. But at the same time, and in that special way that we psychologically interesting people tend to be, I’m not fine at all. Depression and anxiety are my particular afflictions, and they stalk me like bloodhounds – maybe they’re the black dogs we hear so much about.

This means that most of the time, I am OK. And some of the time, I’m really, really not. Some of the time I’m sunk so low into a lightless pit that I honestly don’t know how I can climb out. Some of the time my heart’s racing and my breath is coming in short gasps, my whole being seizing up with a directionless fear that makes no sense and responds to no reason.

And the rest of the time, I’m fine apart from the constant nagging fear that one of those bad times is just about to spring itself on me. It can be…tiring.

And I’m pretty lucky, really. I know people whose battles with their own brains are so much harder than mine, who fight much bigger and more terrifying demons. I am in awe of those people’s strength – I don’t know how they plough on every day, because I know how hard it is for me with my relatively mild problems.

Moreover, I know how much harder it feels, every time RU OK Day comes around. Because being asked if you’re OK is not as great a thing as Beyond Blue’s jolly ads make it seem. If I’m suffering, the question puts me in a dilemma: does the asker actually want to know? If I tell them the truth, will it even help? Am I just going to drive yet another friend away if I ruin their day with a description of just how not-OK I am?

If I’m not suffering, it’s even worse. RU OK Day urges us all to go out and check up on our friends, apropos of nothing but the behest of the Day. Well, I can tell you, being asked if you’re OK, when you know the only reason you’re being asked is the date…it really sucks. It feels phony, and artificial, and insincere. But worst of all: it reminds you that you’re not OK.

See, I like feeling like I’m a normal guy. I like feeling like I fit into society and am capable of living a happy, normal life. A lot of the time I manage to feel like this.

On RU OK Day I never do.

On RU OK Day I feel like a freak. I feel like a failure. I feel like the whole country is banding together to label me “DIFFERENT”. It’s like there’s a grand conspiracy to prevent me from ever forgetting that I’m messed up. RU OK Day sucks the hope out of me and leaves me curled in a ball cursing myself for being such a loser.

I don’t think anyone is trying to do this to me. In fact, just to be clear: the impulse to ask someone if they’re OK is in no way a bad one, and we should, indeed, all take an active interest in each others’ welfare. I don’t blame anyone for checking up on me, and I don’t blame any person for making me feel like this.

But feel like this I do, and RU OK Day is the reason. It’s not a day of support for someone like me, it’s a day for singling us out and making sure we’re completely aware that we’re not normal.

Maybe it’d be worth going through this every year, if RU OK Day were a constructive exercise. But it’s the very opposite. RU OK Day is typical of officially-sanctioned exercises in “awareness-raising”: it is the means by which the powers that be avoid any responsibility for practical solutions.

Mentally ill people do not need awareness. We do not need kind words. We do not need a Day. We need help. Doctors. Therapists. Hospital beds. Medication. Actual, tangible measures that can save lives.

But Australia is as good at avoiding practical measures as it is at congratulating itself. And RU OK Day is a major weapon in government efforts to pretend they care without having to spend any money. Every time a politician makes a speech about how important is to “reach out” and “listen” and – foulest phrase of all – “start a conversation”, they are actually saying, “This is enough. Nice speeches and glossy PR campaigns are all we’re offering, and you better be happy with that.”

We’re being sold a pup. Every year we celebrate RU OK Day and assure ourselves that asking “RU OK?” is the answer that our mentally ill friends are looking for. Every year we remind ourselves that as long as we’re having conversations, all will be well. Every year governments congratulate themselves on short-changing their people again. Every year we marvel at all the wonderful awareness we’ve raised.

Well, I hope I can raise a bit of awareness right now too. I hope I can make you aware that RU OK Day isn’t enough. I hope I can make you aware of just how miserable the day makes some of those it’s supposed to be helping. And I hope that, being aware of these things, you’ll decide that if it’s worth asking us if we’re OK, it’s worth asking us what you can do to help us BE OK, as well.