From grade school throughout college I heard it way too often, usually paired with an overdramatic eye roll: “She’s just doing it for the attention.”
It could be a response to almost any adolescent or young adult cry for help – cutting, burning, excessive drinking, or suicidal threats. According to Healthyplace.com, 1 in 5 women engage in self-injurious behavior, and 90% of those women begin doing so as a teenager. This is a huge amount of girls, making it no surprise that rumors of self-harm and suicidal threats run rampant throughout gossipy school hallways.
Hearing that someone you know purposefully hurts herself or wants to kill herself is really scary. I think that’s why it can be so easy to dismiss – if we tell ourselves that she is just saying this for attention, we don’t have to worry about the horrible possibility that she might actually kill herself. It’s just for attention, we think. She wouldn’t actually do that.
And here’s the truth: Yes. She IS doing it for attention. She desperately needs attention. And we need to give it to her.
I think a lot about mental illness and how it compares to physical illness. If someone complains that they have a migraine, she’ll be met with an outpouring of support. “That’s so horrible!” friends will say. “Can I get you a water? An Advil? Here, let me dim the lights for you.” Someone who explains that she cuts herself or is thinking of killing herself isn’t always as lucky. Her friends might wonder if she’s doing it for attention, her mom might worry that she is being manipulative, and a lot of people might pretend that she never even said anything because they are so unsure of how to respond to such a scary statement.
As girls who support other girls, we need to stop thinking of attention-seeking as an absolutely, no-questions-asked negative behavior. When a girl makes an intense statement like this, we need to fight our old way of thinking – the thinking that tells us that she isn’t serious and that we should change the subject – and make the choice to give her the attention she is looking for. She is going through something that’s hurting her. She wants someone to listen to her.
A lot of people are afraid that talking to their friend about suicide will only make things worse. This isn’t true. If your friend is thinking about hurting herself, it actually helps to talk about it, because it lets her feel heard and it allows you to learn more about why she is feeling this way (Kevin Caruso, “Suicide Myths,” Suicide.org).
When you hear that someone is thinking of hurting herself, listen to her without judgment and she will feel understood. Encourage her to get help. You could even offer to go with her to a school counselor or a mental health professional. Help her get the positive attention that she so desperately deserves.
If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, please get help! Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit their website to chat online with someone who can help: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/