Most of us have heard this phrase used in relation to someone one with a mental health condition. When someone self-harms, they’re “just attention seeking”, when someone attempts suicide but doesn’t complete or attends A&E, they’re “just attention seeking”. It is used in a derogative way and has an undertone of “don’t give them attention”, “they’re time wasters” and “make sure they understand how inconvenient they’re being”. I’ve heard it used by many different people including doctors, nurses, police and MPs.
If you actually step back and think about this…when a baby cries, they are asking for their needs to be met, we do not blame a baby for causing a scene, that is the only way they are able to get their needs met…if, at that point, their needs are not met, they are likely to develop other coping strategies – some will scream and cry more or bang their fists on the side of their cot while others will shut up and never expect their needs to be met. The care giver has the control over whether they receiving the attention they need. From the minute babies are born, they seek attention, they need attention. This does not disappear as babies grow into children and then into adults, we learn to satisfy ourselves, yes, but we still need attention in a variety of ways, it’s natural.
If an individual is in emotional distress, anxious, depressed, frightened, paranoid or confused they have a need to decrease the distress – this is a natural human desire. Some people will find it easier than others to manage their emotions. Most people will need to express their emotion and may need support from others. If, for some reason, they are unable to express their emotion appropriately or rationally, or their needs are not heard, they are likely to express the emotion in an unusual way, this can be known as “acting out”, they will seek behaviours that satisfy their natural human needs. Once this happens, is it right that they are then told they should not have attention? Surely the earlier they receive attention, the quicker their needs will be met and the unhelpful behaviour can be altered. These people need support to ensure they are able to express and relieve their emotions in a healthy way – how can this happen if people turn them away and they are told they are an annoyance or an inconvenience?
At times, when mentally very unwell, I’ve been distressed by voices in my head shouting hurtful remarks at me, I didn’t have the language or understanding to explain what was happening but I wanted them to stop (I think this is a reasonable desire!). Having tried every healthy coping mechanism I could think of and nothing having worked, at times I’ve banged my head against a wall with such repeated force I’ve ended up with severe bruising. This would go some way to relieving the voices. But I would then need assessing for concussion, fractures etc. The last thing I wanted was to sit in A&E for hours but there I was left, well past the target waiting time… at the time it made sense to me that I was being punished for my bad behaviour, after all I had done it to myself. The doctor then looked at me with such disdain, I was left with no doubt I was below dirt on his shoe. Being treated with contempt confirmed my belief that I was worthless, pointless and not worth helping.
Often people who self harm or act out in other ways do not want attention for that behaviour, I have always been embarrassed and ashamed and done my best to hide what’s happened. I have not wanted attention but I’ve needed attention (both for the physical injuries and) to understand what was happening so I could learn how to express my needs and emotions in a healthy and understandable way.
Some people worry that giving this “bad behaviour” attention, it will just continue. Believe me, if you’ve reached the point of acting out your emotions, it’s going to continue. Giving the right support and attention will ease the situation not compound it.
The state of the child and adolescent mental health service scares me. Reading this account from the Guardian saddens but does not surprise me. If children are left in mental distress, rates of child suicide will increase and those who do survive will end up in the adult mental health system – a very undesirable place, best avoided!
Next time you here someone say “they’re just attention seeking” with a derogative tone, say “yes, that is because they need attention”. They may not be asking for it in the most healthy way but that doesn’t mean you deny them the help and support they desperately need to work out how best to aviate their distress in the short and the long term.