In a word, no. It isn’t.
I deliver a fair bit of training on self-harm to foster carers and children’s homes. And in these sessions, there is one phrase that crops up nearly every time. “Isn’t it just attention seeking?”
And it’s not just carers. I’ve heard it from social workers, doctors, teachers, even – and especially – from psychiatric nurses. I know this, I used to be one.
There are so many things wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s just start with the obvious.
How To Get Someone’s Attention
A simple “Hello” seems to do the trick most of the time. So why would a young person go to the bother of tearing their arms to shreds just to get our attention? Are we that hard to reach? Is it that difficult to get through to us?
Ignoring Something Doesn’t Make it Go Away
The natural response to thinking self-harm is attention seeking is, “so don’t give them the attention, it only encourages them”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this. And yet, this thinking couldn’t be more flawed.
Consider a small child, trying to get our attention. They may tug on our sleeve, call our name. When they are ignored, they will tug harder, call louder. When we have ignored them for long enough, they will be so frustrated that they will shout and scream and smash things up. Then they get sent to the naughty step.
And yet we are are dead surprised when self-harm escalates, despite our best efforts to ignore it.
Communication is Not Attention Seeking
Self-harm can be a genuine attempt to communicate emotional and mental pain. This is absolutely not the same as “attention seeking”.
Emotional and mental pain is very difficult to communicate. This is especially when the young person is distressed and worried about how others may respond.
Emotional and mental pain is very difficult to communicate.
Sometimes, someone may hurt themselves to physically manifest their inner pain – “this is how much it hurts to be me”.
When we ignore people’s attempts to communicate with us, we shouldn’t be surprised when they try harder to communicate by increasing the level of self-harm.
The Condescending Nature of “Just”
People never say “attention seeking”. They always say “just attention seeking”, with added emphasis on the just. The word “just” is condescending and belittles the persons distress.
It shuts down any other explanation of why they may be hurting themselves. It’s the worst form of labelling. It only makes us think that we understand it, without having to make the effort to actually understand it.
We All Seek Attention
All social behaviour is attention seeking. You wear nice clothes and get your hair done – attention seeking; you go for a job interview – attention seeking; you post a pic on Facebook or Twitter – attention seeking.
If we should ignore self-harm on the basis that it is just attention seeking, then maybe we should ignore everyone, all the time. After all, we don’t want to encourage them.
Ignoring them isn’t working
Or maybe there is positive and negative attention? Or the right and wrong ways to get attention? But if we are so certain that self harm is the wrong kind of attention seeking, how are we helping them seek the right kind of attention in the right kind of way? Because ignoring them isn’t working.
Not My Problem
In one training session, a participant said, “If they can’t figure out how to get attention, then that’s not my problem. They need to learn.”
This places all the responsibility at the door of the distressed young person. The carer simply avoids having to take any responsibility for the situation or how to resolve it.
Maybe the self-harm is being exacerbated by a carer’s failure to provide emotional support? Maybe the young person doesn’t trust their carer? This is quite likely if their carer is being so dismissive of their emotional distress.
And maybe what they really want is someone to keep them safe from their demons, because they can’t do it alone? But, yeah, let’s just ignore it. It’ll be fine. They’ll learn.
Yes, they will learn. They will learn that others cannot be trusted to help them. They will learn not to confide in people. They will learn that they really are on their own.
Not Doing It For Kicks
Folk do not do this for giggles. They don’t do it because they are bored, or to wind us up. They do it because they are overwhelmed with negative emotion and do not know another way of coping. They don’t do it because they want to. They do it because they need to.
What in hell is wrong with giving a traumatised and distressed person our love and attention? Are we monsters?
So What if it is Attention Seeking?
Even if self-harm is attention seeking – and it isn’t – what in hell is wrong with giving a traumatised and distressed person our love and attention? Are we monsters?
So let’s ban the use of “attention seeking” from our vocabulary. Challenge anyone who uses it, no matter how much authority they command. Seek other explanations. Every person who self-harms has a different reason. Don’t make assumptions or generalisations.
Get specific. Get personal. Get closer.
And, please, give them all the attention they need.
Edit: this post orginally featured a graphic photograph of self harm. The photo was taken by a young person of her own arm to illustrate how self harm is not attention seeking. Following a discussion on Twitter about research into the impact that images of self harm can have on people in distress, the photo has been replaced.
Sometimes, when trying to make a point about something, we make a call about where the line between impact and decency is. In this case, we accept that we have misjudged that line and replaced the image.
To read more on the impact of self harm imagery, this research is a good starting point
For more on self-harm, see: