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Community Connections

RUOK? Day 2021: One life-changing question

As she heads into another day of intense, back-to-back telehealth counselling sessions with students feeling overwhelmed by the effects of a lockdown, isolation and remote studying in the midst of a global pandemic, the University of Canberra’s Associate Director of Medical and Counselling, Vicki de Prazer, knows three things for certain.

Firstly, that none of us is ok.

Secondly, that not being ok is a perfectly reasonable state of being, in the time we find ourselves in.

And thirdly, that there has never been a more important time to reach out – once, twice, as many times as it takes – to others.

Reaching out on a deeper level seems to be a theme for this year’s RUOK? Day on 9 September, as it poses a question and reminder: Are they really OK? Ask them today.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic first started early last year, there were already many people who were impacted – but that number, and that impact, has now grown,” Vicki says.

There was optimism that the end of 2020 would bring a resolution – a feeling soon replaced by growing ennui, as hope and resilience can be rubbed away by the twin grindstones of time and uncertainty.

So if in the latter half of 2021, you are wondering why you can’t seem to muster the energy to bake bread from scratch and have Zoom dance-offs with your friends the way you did last year, don’t beat yourself up.

If you’re struggling to feel connected, or excited about the future – you’re not alone.

However, Vicki says, this is also a very important time to really appreciate what we have, what we can do, to express gratitude and appreciation to those around you, and to foster our resilience.

“The effects of the pandemic are ongoing and now so much closer to home – the little pick-me-ups like holidays and seeing family just seem a little further from our grasp.,” she says.

“People who were already struggling with mental health issues, prior to the pandemic, are struggling even more now – many of those who weren’t, now find it much harder to bounce back from what they would ordinarily have considered small challenges.”

This widespread strain on our collective mental health is what necessitates outreach with both depth and breadth.

It means asking the crucial question – are you ok, truly? – possibly more than once, and asking it of more than just your regular circle of friends and family.

“At this time, it is really important to make that extra effort to reach out to people on the periphery of your friendship circle,” Vicki says.

“Perhaps it’s someone whom you just know in passing, in one of your tutorials – you can even send an email or a text. It’s often the little incidental encounters that we need to make more of, and that can make a huge difference. Even if people seem like they are doing ok, that second, gently probing question of ‘are you really ok’ is very important right now.”

Vicki says that lockdown itself brings additional challenges, as isolation can create an echoing silence which amplifies past hurts and traumas, perceived failures and disappointments.

“In this space, any kind of pain seems bigger somehow, and this is also something weighing people down,” she says. “If people are dealing with trauma or abuse, it’s very important to help them get the support they need – and to remind them that you are there, to stand by them and be their friend.

“There will also be situations in which you might ask … what could we do to make ourselves feel even better than ok? It’s an invitation to engage further, and to lift ourselves up even more. In this case, you acknowledge what you or others are feeling, but then also work to shift a negative focus.

“Say: let’s go for a walk in the sunshine, let’s schedule that Zoom lunch date – let’s deliberately do things to help people shift into a better place, wherever we can.

“We need to find ways to have things to look forward to, to add bits of joy into our lives.”

And while Vicki says it’s important to keep abreast of the pandemic news to know about exposure sites and hotspots, and the latest updates on what to do, it can help to switch off after you have the information you need.

“Be aware of the news, but then shift your awareness so that you are micro-focused, rather than macro-focused and doom scrolling all the time,” she says.

Asking simple questions, extending support, carving out and holding space, and infusing scraps of joy, all add up – and more than ever today, every little bit counts.

Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo and video by Tyler Cherry.

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