Instead of asking R U OK, we need to ask R U angry?
As R U OK? Day approaches, we should be asking ourselves: Are we asking the right questions? The symptoms of depression aren’t always easy to recognise, even in yourself.
Indeed, people’s mental health issues can be disguised with smiles. A wolf in lamb’s clothing, so to speak. But just as often, mental health issues can present as bad tempers, angry outbursts and irritability. More like a lamb in wolf’s clothing – the harsh and ugly masking the vulnerability beneath.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been the director of a Sydney-wide network of therapists, which receives hundreds of enquiries each week from people seeking help. I recently made a startling discovery when reviewing our data for the most common concerns people mention when calling to book an appointment.
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Australians are a lot angrier than we might think
I would have expected anxiety and depression to be at the top of the list, considering they’re the most common mental health issues in Australia. But there was another issue topping the list, and the frequency with which people enquired about this issue outstripped both depression and anxiety by nearly two to one. That issue was anger management.
As a practicing psychotherapist with over 20 years under my belt, I know that anger isn’t a primary mental health condition; in other words, we don’t see anger as the root cause issue. However, it can be a symptom closely linked to anxiety and depression.
The trigger, not the reason
Often, the symptoms that go with anxiety and depression, like constant worry, irritability, or not enjoying life, have been so longstanding in a person that they think it’s a core part of their personality, rather than a condition that can be treated.
They’ll finally call a psychologist or counsellor to seek help because someone else has prompted them to do so. For example, they’ve had a fight with their partner, conflict at work, or someone has called them out for their behaviour. In more extreme circumstances, their anger issues may have resulted in legal charges against them.
Can we admit there’s a deeper cause?
My concern is that despite some of the incredible awareness raising campaigns in Australia, people are still either reluctant or unable to identify depression or anxiety as a core issue. Feelings of anxiety or depression are often much more private and simmer under the surface for years before secondary symptoms like anger rear their ugly heads, causing serious personal or relational problems.
Research shows us that stigma, embarrassment, and problems with recognising the symptoms of anxiety and depression are some of the biggest barriers that prevent people from seeking help. And perhaps, if we simply ask R U OK? we won’t get through to those people who are either unaware or embarrassed to say that they’re actually not okay.
We’re not asking the right question
So, with R U OK day on the 10th of September, I’ve been thinking… perhaps it’s time to refine the message? Maybe we need to be asking, R U worried a lot? R U enjoying life? R U angry most of the time? Finding creative ways to get through to people may be the best way to help those who don’t realise their symptoms are treatable – and that on the other side – is a vastly better quality of life.