When I left off last post I began talking about the issue of self-injury of attention seeking, and its subsequent denigration. This is especially troubling to me and I think it really needs some addressing. Here is my reality check to anyone who’s ever said, or thought, that someone was hurting themselves only as an effort to get attention. (Given in the kindest way possible; anything taken as me yelling or cussing you out would just be counterproductive)

When I was actively cutting, the vast majority of the time I would cover any open injuries. Since so many people who have self-injured will even cover up scars, it’s probably safe to say that most people aren’t airing their self injuries out for the world to see. And the idea that someone would consciously cover their wounds, yet still, somehow, be “attention-seeking” is something that I just can’t wrap my mind around. So, I would assume what’s considered “attention-seeking” is self-injury with no attempts to cover the evidence (since I’ve never thought attention-seeking, I can only assume)? Let’s go with this working definition that uncovered self-injury = attention seeking label.

The best explanation and response to the “doing it for attention” claim I’ve ever heard was from a therapist in a group during my one stint in an eating disorder program. Let me preface the information with telling you that I was particularly resistant to the whole treatment thing in this instance, especially eating disorder focused treatment – I was really invested in the lie I was telling myself that I did NOT have an eating disorder. As a rule of thumb, I don’t like group therapy stuff. On the rare occasion that someone would say anything in the situation that I would wholeheartedly agree with, and consciously place in my memory bank, means that it was some really good information worth consideration.

Ready? I can’t overemphasize how good this is, so you may want to make sure you have something ready to write this down, or have your <command> or <control> and <C> fingers prepped.

She said that when people claim that someone is doing something to get attention, her reaction is then ATTEND to them.” If you honestly think someone is self-injuring in an effort to get attention, it’s fair to assume that the person’s needs aren’t getting met, so this is what they’ve figured out works. Find a way to attend to them so that their needs are getting met, thereby eliminating the need for self-injury.

However, I would argue that the cases where people are self-injuring solely in an attempt to get attention are by far the minority. Honestly, think about it for a minute. This person is choosing to do whatever it is that they’re doing to themselves only because they want attention?? People, teenagers especially, are very creative. When they really want something, they’ll figure out how to get it. I’d be willing to wager that if someone didn’t actually want to hurt themselves, they would find alternative methods of getting attention.

Now, let me tell you about my personal experience. Like I said, I nearly always covered new injuries. Self-injury is a very personal thing, ripe with stigma, and, once my mental illness history was established, a surefire way to get people concerned about me and asking questions. I didn’t want their concern. In my mind concern=surveillance and I wanted to be sure that I could do whatever it was that I wanted to do to myself. Questions would then verify their concern and surveillance. Also, in that state I believed that it was wasteful for anyone to spend any mental energy being concerned about me. I wasn’t worth it.

One of the rare occasions when I did not cover injuries was at the beginning of my self-injury when I wasn’t aware of the stigma associated with it (a quick lesson to learn) and didn’t yet have an established mental health history. What I guess I’m trying to get at here is, especially in kids and teens, is that displaying self-injury may actually be an indication that it’s a newer thing; it’s the best time to talk about what’s going on in his or her life, and possibly stop the behaviour before it becomes a crutch. Condemning or dismissing the behavior, or person, as “attention-seeking” is likely to only teach people that this is something that should be hidden and secretive. Instead of stopping the behaviour, you’ve just forced it underground. In the case of a school atmosphere, you’ve also preemptively taught the same lesson to every other child who interacts with the original, self-injurious child.

The other times that I would not bother to cover my self-injury was while I was hospitalized where it was well-established and widely known that I had self-injured, so no one paid much attention to it, and much later on, at times when I was in such a depressive state that I didn’t even care if anyone knew about it. I didn’t have the energy to maintain the guise of mental health anymore. I also had this (unlikely) notion that if I didn’t try to hide it then people would just assume that the injury was not self-inflicted. Sure, maybe part of me was “attention seeking” in this scenario, but the attention was more “hey, I’m really not okay right now and too proud/embarrassed/scared to admit it” than “check out what I did to myself”. I suppose that would be considered more “a cry for help.” Much more accepted, and somehow more deserving of compassion, than “attention-seeking”. See the problem here?

As far as I’m concerned, every act of self-injury should be taken seriously and confronted (confronted, not attacked). Now, there can be a delicate balance between taking it seriously versus overreacting. I’ve become somewhat of a go-to person for friends and extended family when they’ve encountered someone close to them self-injuring. In these instances, I’ve always been sure to preface my advice with an explanation that:

1) Self-injury and suicide are two different things

2) Self-injury alone is not indicative of major mental illness

3) Self-injury is not indicative of chronic mental illness

My hope is that these three statements will help to alleviate some of the panic or discomfort associated with self-injury that may lead to a (somewhat understandable) freak out. Not that major, or chronic, mental illness is the worst thing ever (you may just have to trust me on that one), but self-injury does not automatically mean that you need to worry about these other issues.

My next post will be directed at those who know someone who is self-injury and my advice for do’s and don’ts when you do confront the issue. For now, I’ll leave you with a very simple take-home message of this rather long post:

LABELING SELF-INJURY AS ATTENTION-SEEKING ISN’T HELPING ANYONE.

About Tracy Deyell

Tracy Deyell is a Ph.D. student living with major depression and bulimia. Follow her story on HMC's Supportive Minds'd blog, or follow her on Twitter.

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