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The Alternative to Calling People With Mental Illness ‘Attention Seekers’

I’m going to ask what may seem like a rude question:

When people talk about their experiences with depression or anxiety, are they attention seekers? What about people who self-harm? Or, what about people who act out or cry in public? Are we just seeking attention?

Sort of. Yes and no.

Yes, we are often seeking attention. All humans need social interaction and can benefit from validation of their pain. But, and it’s a big caveat: no, we are not doing this to be dramatic or cruel or whatever other negatives people may believe. We are likely doing it because we need attention. We want help. We want support. We want treatment. We are attention needers.

In my training to become a mental health first aid instructor, we talked a lot about the primarily negative and stigmatizing words that are used to describe people experiencing a mental illness or a mental health challenge. For example, we’ve been called “crazy,” “mad,” “nuts” or people use non-person first language like “psychotic.” (Please don’t make me continue.) I see “attention seeker” as another of those unfavorable examples. It implies manipulating and misbehaving. Hence, why I loved when my trainer offered the alternative of “attention needer.”

When you reframe the label as someone who needs attention, you approach them differently. You begin to ask different questions. Instead of pulling away, we ask: “What kind of attention do they need?” Instead of “Why are they acting so badly,” we ask: “How can I help?” This switch fosters compassion rather than anger, and who couldn’t use a little more compassion in the world?

Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash

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