Dialog Box


Asking the difficult question

”How are you, really?”

Contrary to our typical Aussie greeting – “How are ya?” – asking someone how they really are can be rather daunting.

For some, asking the question might be the most difficult part. But fearing the response is completely normal, too.

Hearing that someone isn’t doing well can be difficult. It can leave us feeling hopeless or scared, or we may not know what to do or say to help.

It’s okay not to know how to help, but you can be the first step in helping someone find the support they need. 

Here is a simple guide on how to ask someone if they’re okay, how to provide them with support (including emergency support), and how to look after yourself in the process.


How to check in with someone

While you might be nervous to ask someone if they’re okay, the question itself is really simple. 

Here’s a few easy steps you can follow to ask someone how they really are:

  1. Practice asking the question
    When you’re by yourself, ask the question out loud: Are you okay, Max?
    Getting comfortable with asking the question can reduce the nerves you may be feeling about asking.

  2. Ensure sufficient time and privacy to talk
    Before you ask the question, make sure both you and the person have enough time for a good chat – you don’t want this conversation to be rushed. Also make sure you ask in a private space, so that the person can feel more comfortable to speak freely without someone overhearing their response.

  3. Ask the question
    Some ways to ask are:
    Are you okay?
    How are you, really?

    Or you may like to precursor the question with a statement that shows your concern for them, such as:
    I’ve noticed you’ve seemed down recently, are you okay?

  4. Listen
    If the person isn’t doing okay, sometimes the most important thing they need in that moment is for someone to listen to them. Don’t try to fix their issues. Don’t try to compare their issues or feelings with your own. Just listen.
    Having someone listen and acknowledge their struggle can be a tremendous help. Sometimes we just need a friend, rather than a ‘fixer’.

  5. Ask about suicidal thoughts
    This one can be even more nerve wracking to ask, but remember it’s better to ask than to find out when it’s too late.

    The best ways to ask about suicide are:
       Have you been having thoughts of suicide?
       Are you having thoughts of suicide?
       Are you thinking about killing yourself?

    Ensure you don’t sound judgemental when asking the question, and avoid saying things like:
       Are you thinking of committing suicide? – This makes it sound like a crime.
       You’re not thinking of doing anything stupid are you? – No one will admit to this because no one wants to feel stupid!

    Being judgemental can hinder your open and honest conversation with the person.

    If the person has admitted to having suicidal thoughts, you can also ask them:
       Have you made plans to take your life?
    Asking this question can give you a better understanding of how at-risk the person is, and can better guide you on what to do next.

    If the person is having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible.
    If the person has stated that they have made plans for suicide, we recommend calling 000.

How to follow up with someone

If the person is not okay, whether they are having suicidal thoughts or not, it is important to follow up with them to see how they’re going.

The five steps above can be used again when following up with someone, but instead your question might sound like:

How have you been, Max?
How are you coping?
How have you been feeling since our discussion?

In addition to the five steps, it can also help to use these simple steps when following up with someone:

  1. Ask how you can help
    Listening and being there for the person is one way of helping, but it can also help to recommend professional support. You might like to offer them some self-help resources, or recommend that they see their GP or a counsellor/therapist.

  2. Let them know you’re available to chat
    Tell the person you’re available to chat whenever they need. This reaffirms that you are there for them and that you are willing to help them get through this – together.

Looking after your own mental health

Being there for someone else during a difficult time in their life can be tolling on our own mental health.

There is no shame in asking for help if you are feeling down, stressed, or helpless. In fact, it’s completely normal to feel these things when someone we care about is going through a difficult time.

Remember to:

  • take time out to check in with yourself 
  • look after your body
  • ensure you’re getting enough sleep 
  • make time for fun activities or to do things that make you happy
  • reach out to a friend, a family member or a professional for a chat or for support

Concerns of suicide & emergency contacts

If the person has said they are having thoughts of suicide, it is essential to seek professional support.

If their life is in immediate danger, call 000 and ask for an ambulance. If the person is behaving violently and irrationally, it may be helpful to also ask for police support when you make the phone call.

Keeping the person alive – and keeping yourself out of danger – are the most important things to keep in mind. The person may beg for you not to contact emergency services, but you can reassure them that you have their best interests in mind.

If the person’s life is not in immediate danger, the crisis support phone lines below can be of help.

You should provide these to the person so that they can call up on their own terms, but you may also offer to call up together to provide them with emotional support. If they do not want to call, you can call up by yourself to seek guidance on how you can support them.

Lifeline | T: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service | T: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue | T: 1300 22 4636

Mental Health resources 

There are some great self-help resources online for people experiencing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, amongst others.

You might like to recommend these to the person in need:

While self-help resources are handy, seeking the help of a mental health professional is recommended.

You could recommend that the person visits their GP to ask for a mental health treatment plan. Using this plan, they can claim up to 20 subsidised sessions with a mental health professional (e.g. counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc). Visit the Australian Government website for more information on this.

At CatholicCare we offer affordable, confidential counselling throughout Victoria. Referrals are not required to access counselling with us.

Remember that you – the helper – can also access mental health supports if you’re feeling stressed or down.

It takes compassion and commitment to support someone in need, but we can’t be of great help to others when we ourselves are struggling too.

Remember: check in with others, and check in with yourself.

Liz Gellel | Marketing Coordinator - Digital Lead

[Article updated August 2022]

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20 April 2021
Category: Blog