by Matt Dawson
Circular Quay was a sea of yellow T-shirts on 12 September, as volunteers asked morning commuters one simple, thought-provoking question: “Are you okay?”
R U OK? Day, the brainchild of advertising executive Gavin Larkin, who died at 42 of lymphoma, aims to raise awareness about suicide prevention by encouraging people to start a conversation about mental health issues.
According to Janina Kearns, Chief Executive Officer of R U OK? Foundation, post-event awareness has increased from 11 per cent in 2010 to 68 per cent in 2012.
“R U OK? Day in 2013 was all about creating year-round conversations. We wanted people to talk, tweet, text and blog about the conversations that change lives, and encourage one another to ask people ‘are you ok?’ regularly and meaningfully,” Ms Kearns says.
The centrepiece of this year’s public display in Sydney was a conversation pit filled with yellow and black rubber balls outside Customs House. Ambassadors like singer Damien Leith and NSW Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries were miked up and thrust into the pit for a good old yarn.
“R U OK? Day works so well because it is simple, fun and people can identify with the concept. It is also a reminder that we get better outcomes when there is a community response and ownership of the solutions. Suicide prevention cannot be dealt with by the healthcare system alone,” Mr Humphries says.
In 2012 R U OK? Day Foundation won the inaugural Don Ritchie Suicide Prevention Award, receiving $10,000 from NSW Department of Health. The award recognises Mr Ritchie’s efforts to stop suicide attempts at the Gap, near his home in Watsons Bay. Over 45 years, Mr Ritchie saved hundreds of lives by convincing people not to jump. He died in 2012 aged 86.
Irish born singer Damien Leith worked with Gavin Larkin’s brother Aya, in the music industry in the United States and has been involved with the event since it began.
“Most of us know someone who was been afflicted by depression and seen them go through difficult moments in their life. If nothing else, this event reminds us that a simple conversation goes a long way,” Mr Leith says.
Research suggests that people experiencing suicidal feelings are less likely to act on their impulses if they have strong relationships.
Gavin was motivated to act after the suicide in 1995 of his father Barry, a well-respected figure in the world of advertising. Gavin Larkin launched the initiative at Parliament House, Canberra in 2009.
Gavin’s emotional tale was told on ABC’s Australian Story in September 2011. During the program he said that when diagnosed with lymphoma (stage 4) in early 2010, he began to re-evaluate the priorities in his life.
After enduring over a dozen rounds of chemotherapy, Mr Larkin died just days after Australian Story went to air.
Joe Hildebrand, a News Limited journalist, is another media identity putting his name to the cause this year.
“When a friend is in trouble, we need to ensure the lines of communication are open. We need to do more to de-stigmatise mental health conditions and ensure that if someone gets into a place of helplessness, they know it is okay to talk about it,” Mr Hildebrand says.
Asked what experience he has had with mental health issues, Mr Hildebrandt quipped, “like most journalists and writers, I suffer from many of them”.
On a serious note, Mr Hildebrandt described the recent funeral of “a friend of a friend” who committed suicide as a harrowing experience and “an event that no one wants to go to”.
“If he felt he could have talked to someone, maybe the outcome would have been different,” Mr Hildebrandt says.