I have been called ‘attention seeking’ in the past for ‘always making everything’ about my mental illness. I’ve been told I am ‘obsessed’ with my mental illness and need to stop talking about it. I know many others who have shared the same story of being called ‘attention seeking’ when mentioning their mental illness casually. The most common use of ‘attention seeking’ I have come across is when referring to individuals who self-harm. What has always puzzled me about this is that people say ‘attention seeking’ as if it is a bad thing to draw attention to one’s struggles.
Let’s quickly begin by defining ‘attention seeking’. An ‘attention seeker’ is someone who acts solely in a way that is geared towards getting other’s attention. The attention they get makes them feel better about themselves and boosts their self-esteem. It doesn’t matter if that attention is good or bad. When I think about people communicating about their mental illness or trying to get attention surrounding their mental illness, it really doesn’t seem to fit the definition of ‘attention seeking’ at all. Here’s why.
There is this implication with the term ‘attention seeking’ that people are simply acting out for attention. People assert that another person is being ‘attention seeking’ without thinking critically about why the person might want attention in the first place. From my experience and observations there is always a reason an individual with a mental illness is seeking attention. Attention isn’t the end goal. For me sometimes I bring up my mental illness in what others might perceive as an ‘attention seeking’ way because I want to clarify my boundaries and expectations. Other times it may be a cry for help, where I feel uncomfortable asking someone directly for help (due to fear of rejection) so I act out as a way of asking for help. In this sense, so called ‘attention seeking’ is just another form of help seeking. And not about getting attention at all.
And in cases were people are behaving in an ‘attention seeking’ fashion to ask for help, we should not condemn them for the language their message comes in. Help seeking behaviour should always be encouraged. I fear that by labelling people as ‘attention seeking’ when they seek help we are making them and others less likely to seek help in the future.
Now it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. If people are being labelled as ‘attention seeking’ for even mild forms of expression about their mental illness that clearly says something about the way society feels about mentally ill people. Most people don’t want to hear about it. Mental illness is ugly. Scary. Confronting. It is much easier for people to pretend that it doesn’t exist and go on living in their bubbles. I have often lost friendships due to people not wanting to hear about my mental illnesses and being sick of me being an ‘attention seeking’ downer. Like it or not, many people find us advocating for ourselves and speaking up about experiences distasteful and offensive.
I think a lot of this comes down to the classic ‘keep it behind closed doors’ mentality. There is this notion that we should not ‘air our dirty laundry’ so those of us brave enough to buck the norm are labelled ‘attention seeking’. I’m sure there are people on my personal Facebook feed that think to themselves ‘oh, here we go again’ when I share my blogs. And as frustrating as this is, it hasn’t discouraged me from sharing. This makes me want to talk about mental illness even further. For as long as people need to hear about mental illness, I will keep on talking about it. Call me ‘attention seeking’ if you will, but I will continue sharing about my mental illness and my needs, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make others.
So where to from here? Clearly there is a need to humanise help seeking in all its forms and stop demonising ‘attention seeking’ behaviour. But there is also a need to normalise conversations about mental illness in general so that a person simply mentioning they have a mental illness wont have them labelled an ‘attention seeker’. People need to become more accustomed to these conversations so that they can recognise when a person is just making conversation; sharing something about themselves or asking for help; perhaps seeking attention about their problems.
To anyone who has been called ‘attention seeking’ for communicating about their mental illness, I’m standing right beside you. So what if we are ‘attention seeking’? I’d rather mental illness be in the spotlight than hiding in the shadows.