Labelling a distressed and suicidal patient as ‘attention seeking’ is a quick, thoughtless and frequently used way for a professional to deem someone responsible for their own behaviour, therefore absolving the professional of responsibility to care for them.
I hear the term ‘attention seeking’ as a negative term and in relation to mental illness used all the time, even by people who are ill themselves and claim to be raising awareness. From the general public to mental health online communities to professionals, its used as an invalidating indicator of someone’s capacity. ‘Attention seeking’ is frequently associated with a) intentional manipulation, and b) this being somewhat outside of any illness, and therefore making someone ‘not really unwell’. For many sufferers of mental illness, it’s what they fear being called out for the most. Being called out for not ‘really’ being unwell, and therefore that their behaviour is stemming from an inherent flaw in character or personality, rather than an illness that can be treated. As many people with mental illnesses already feel like they are somehow frauds of undeserving of help, these thoughtless labels can have an enormous impact on someone who is already experiencing immense suffering.
What is attention seeking?
Google defines attention seeking as ‘attempting to attract the attention of other people, typically by disruptive or excessively extrovert behaviour’.
In relation to mental health, the majority of symptoms can be argued as ‘disruptive’. That’s what makes it an illness: it disrupts the functioning of someone’s life, and by consequence, it’s almost always going to affect the lives of people around them. In the same sense, many mental illnesses, notably psychotic illnesses or certain personality disorders, can lead to socially inappropriate or seemingly ‘excessively extrovert’ behaviour. It’s the nature of the illness.
So, mental illness is disruptive. It is upsetting for the sufferer and it is upsetting for other people. However, many sufferers of mental illness make no attempt to ‘attract attention’. Sometimes, due to the nature of the illness, certain symptoms such as very severe self harm or outbursts of anger can attract the attention of others far beyond the intention of the sufferer. It is not true that self-harm is by definition ‘attention seeking’. In fact, many people will go to extremes to ensure that their destruction remains a ‘secret’ and are embarrassed to seek help, often precisely because of the fear that they will then be an attention seeker.
And sometimes there is a need to attraction attention, whether implicit or explicit. And that doesn’t mean that these unwell people are any less ill or any less deserving of help than others who are able to successfully keep their illnesses locked behind closed doors.
Why do mentally ill people exhibit attention seeking behaviour?
In my eyes, the biggest problem is with a system that often will only offer substantial help to mental health patients who have exhibited extremely high and immediate risk of suicide, or harming other people. For this reason, many people who are still very, very unwell yet not at this point, or not exhibiting evidence of this, are deemed low priority and given very little support. This was the case for me. Despite the fact that I was exhibiting serious self-harm and taking overdoses for years before I was sectioned for a serious suicide attempt, I was never offered adequate help before this point because it wasn’t ‘serious’ enough. With hindsight it’s easy to see how my own situation escalated, and maybe some of those previous overdoses were attempts to cry for help, cries for help that were ignored and led me to a position where I believed that my life wasn’t worth living and that I was past the point of help. Trying to get help for my mental illness before things got ‘serious’ enough was like trying to talk to a brick wall.
Just think about like this: if you knew you had a serious physical health problem and it was likely that you could die and yet you were being offered no help, you would be angry about it. You would be kicking your feet and wondering what the hell was going on. It’s just the same with mental illness.
Mental illness can also be very difficult to communicate. You feel like nobody will believe you if you just tell them. You’re scared you’re going to die and you know nobody will help you unless something physical happens. It’s the reality and one that many people will ignore for fear of the label. For fear of the stigma of ‘not really being ill’.
In my eyes, regardless of the reason why you are hurting yourself, you’re unwell. Dismissing someone who has voluntarily taken themselves to hospital for an overdose, or someone whose self harm hasn’t needed physical treatment, as ‘attention seeking’ reflects the sick society we live in. Someone has literally tore themselves apart, and you’re going to sit there and normalise it and dismiss them as a ‘attention seeker’? This is partly the reason why mental health patients can quickly become so, so unwell in the first place.
To those who have ‘never been an attention seeker’
I’m happy for you. Happy that you’ve never had to make a scene in order to get the help that you needed. Never had to tear yourself apart or nearly kill yourself (because suicide or accidental death from a ‘attention seeking’ act, it’s all the same result) because you never felt that your self harm was good enough. Happy that you’ve never had to validate your illness in a world where everyone is suspicious. In some ways, it’s privilege to need help and to just be granted it like that. It’s not the case with everyone.
To those who shame the mentally ill who ‘attention seek’
It’s not hard to show compassion. Regardless of mental health, everyone seeks the things they need to stay alive. And everyone wants validation of love and from other people. We live in a society where every single day almost all of us post things online, expecting attention from our friends and family. There is no shame in this. But, if you have been someone to laugh ‘they’re just attention seeking, don’t pay them any attention’ or trolled someone online with comments such as this, you really should feel ashamed. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the reasons why someone is driven to such desperate behaviour.
Ultimately, attention seeking is the wrong word. What individuals struggling with mental illness want is not attention but professional help, understanding, kindness and compassion, and the love that they can’t provide for themselves. To want all of these things is only human.