health

In 2009, Gavin Larkin created R U OK? Day. Three years later, he died from bone cancer.

Warning: This post contains mentions of suicide and may be triggering for some readers.

It’s been 10 years since Gavin Larkin came up with the idea for R U OK? Day. Sadly, Larkin himself only lived to see the first three R U OK? Days. But his legacy lives on, sparking millions of conversations aimed at preventing suicides each year.

Just over a decade ago, Larkin looked to have everything anyone could want: a successful career in advertising, a wonderful wife, Maryanne, and three beautiful children, Gus, Josie and Van. He knew he should have been feeling “on top of the world”, but he wasn’t.

“I felt empty, I felt black and it really scared me,” Larkin told Australian Story, “and I started to worry that I might do what my father did, which was take his own life.”

Watch: This September 12, take the time to ask yourself and your friends this question: R U OK? 

Video by MMC

Larkin’s father Barry had died by suicide in 1995. He’d had a successful career and a loving family, but in the last few years of his life, he’d become withdrawn and isolated. He didn’t tell anyone about his mental illness.

“It was devastating for my brothers and I, and his friends and loved ones,” Larkin said in an interview about his father’s death. “He was a huge personality, a fabulous bloke, full of life, hugely encouraging, generous and supportive.”

One of Larkin’s colleagues recommended that he do a self-improvement communications course. Part of the course involved him developing a project that would inspire him and benefit the community. So he chose suicide prevention.

Using the skills that had made him such a success in advertising, Larkin came up with the idea of a day of action where people would be encouraged to start conversations with other people who might be struggling. And so the concept of R U OK? Day was born.

Larkin said starting a conversation was the one thing everyone could do to make a real difference.

“The stats show that if you can get somebody who is at risk talking about suicide you actually decrease the chances of them taking their own life,” he explained. “So it is okay to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ and more importantly, it’s okay to say, ‘No, I’m not,’ because that single conversation could change a life.”

ADVERTISEMENT

With Larkin’s contacts, R U OK? Day attracted celebrity ambassadors and wide media support. The message was spread right across Australia.

It was just a matter of months after that first R U OK? Day that Larkin went to the doctor about pain he’d been having in his body that he thought was due to sporting injuries. A full body scan revealed he had bone cancer. It was an aggressive form of lymphoma, and he was given a 50 per cent chance of fully responding to treatment.

Unbelievably, a few weeks later, the family was hit by even worse news. Larkin’s 11-year-old son Gus had been having some trouble with his eye. An MRI showed he had an inoperable brain tumour.

As Larkin told Australian Story, “Devastating doesn’t even do it justice.”

The father and son both went through chemotherapy and other treatment. Larkin said Gus’s bravery and level of acceptance inspired him.

“Like, ‘Man up, ladybird, if your 12-year-old son can be such a stud about it and do it so peacefully and so graciously and like such a gentleman, then you can do it too.’”

Larkin had a bone marrow transplant, but the lymphoma came back. There was nothing more that could be done for him. He worked on the R U OK? campaign from his hospital bed, and fought to stay alive for the third R U OK? Day in September 2011. He managed to do a radio interview on the day, as sick as he was.

ADVERTISEMENT

“R U OK? Day was always something I wanted to see live on because it’s more important than me,” he said.

A week later, he died. He was 42.

R U OK Day Gavin Larkin
Larkin doing interviews for R U OK Day in 2011. Image: ABC Australian Story.

Gus, still fighting the brain tumour, did his best to take on his dad’s responsibilities.

“Being the eldest of my siblings I am now the man of the house and I love looking after mum, my sister and brother as best as I can,” he wrote in an open letter to raise funds for brain cancer. “I love my family so much. I’d do anything for them.”

Gus died in October 2013. He was 15.

Maryanne, Josie and Van have continued to spread the R U OK? message, with Josie giving speeches on behalf of the organisation.

"This is the house that lives and breathes R U OK?” she told the ABC in 2017, “and it's incredible to see the community that R U OK? has built around us.”

Last year, Maryanne told the Sydney Morning Herald that she had no idea R U OK? Day would become this big. She said her husband would have been “so proud”.

“It's really something he's left behind for everyone to remember him by.”

R U OK? Day is Thursday, September 12.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

Tags: gavin-larkin , mental-health , news-stories , r-u-ok
00:00 / ???