I read a tweet recently that said: “How about instead of ‘attention-seeking’ we use the term ‘support-seeking’ and see how it changes our response to people talking about their mental health.”
Let’s do it.
Because mental illness isn’t visible, because it doesn’t show up in an x-ray or a blood test, many people often easily ignore it. There exists a stigma and a belief that someone’s mental illness is a choice, a flaw in character, a shortcoming.
“Snap out of it.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“If you tried harder you would feel better.”
Sharing mental health concerns or challenges is often labeled as attention-seeking yet someone complaining about a broken arm gets stickers and kind messages on their cast. Sorry I can’t put a cast on my brain. Shifting our perspective from attention-seeking to support-seeking is extremely powerful. It creates a new narrative where the person “acting out” (read here “exhibiting symptoms”) is not trying to get attention or pity, but is actively trying to help themselves. They are asking for support.
If I show up at the ER with suicidal thoughts and a plan on how to kill myself, I AM looking for attention. Medical attention. Please.
I have learned over the years to take myself to the ER or ask someone close to me to drive me if I feel I am unable to remain safe. It’s taken a lot of hard work and realizing that there is no weakness in asking for help. I am now able to do what I have to do to keep myself safe and to manage my illness. I am asking for support.
Especially when it comes to suicidal thoughts and self-harm, “attention-seeking” has been the paradigm for so long.
I once was taken to the Douglas Mental Health Institute in Montreal by my partner at the time. He put me in the car, drove me to the hospital and told the doctor “I don’t know what to do.” The doctor said something along the lines of my cuts not being as severe as some he’s seen before. What I heard? “Next time cut deeper and maybe I’ll take you seriously.”
Self-harm and suicide are, the vast majority of the time, not behaviours that seek attention for the sake of attention. They are behaviours to externalize an internal pain that is too complex and excruciating to process. They are visible signs of an invisible illness.
I have often thought as I entered the ER for suicidal thoughts that if I was able to admit to the thoughts and take myself into the hospital, shouldn’t I be able to simply not act on them? Not kill myself?
That thinking leads to people dying. Research has shown that asking someone about suicide directly and candidly greatly reduces the chances of them carrying out the act. When someone shares that they have suicidal thoughts, don’t dismiss it as attention-seeking. Be compassionate, commend their courage and vulnerability, commend their strength in asking for help. Be there for them.
If you see that someone is self-harming, don’t dismiss it as attention-seeking. Be compassionate, recognize the battle they are fighting, acknowledge the psychological pain they must be feeling to inflict physical pain on themselves. Be there for them.
A simple change in language can change our entire perspective. Words are powerful. Mind yours and decide if you want to cause more harm or effect positive change.