Just a cry for help.

How often have you heard the phrases just a cry for help and just attention-seeking?

This is what many people, including many mental health professionals, say about those who seek their assistance. I find it a strangely dispassionate response to another human being’s anguish.

The implication of using these phrases is that it’s OK to ignore the human being who is crying out for help or attention. And the reality is that this is what happens to thousands of people who are struggling with mental and emotional distress. They are ‘just’ ignored.

In a world where people keep asking how can we reduce suicide rates? and how can we make mental health services more effective?, I cannot help but think this is a part of the problem.

To me, it’s all about the word just. A synonym for only or simply. Put in front of the word cry and used in relation to a person who is suffering.

What makes us dismissive of other people’s pain?

Having been on the receiving end of these words, I struggle to understand how and why we decided that some human beings who cry out for help are not worthy of our time or care.

Do we really think that those who ask for help are somehow less in need than those who cannot or will not ask? Or do we think there are ways of asking for help that are somehow more deserving than other methods?

I also wonder when we decided that a person who is seeking our attention must have an egotistical or narcissistic intent that we are justified in ignoring.

Why don’t we assume that the person has genuinely urgent and desperate motivation born of despair? Is there something wrong with providing attention, time and listening to a person who asks for it? Regardless of whether they ask in words or in actions?

These ‘just’ phrases allow our mental health services to leave people isolated and stuck in despair, often with nowhere else to turn.

I don’t really know why or how we ended up with a society that has found such convenient ways to dismiss people in pain. I suspect it makes life easier to dismiss people and situations that make us uncomfortable, or where there is no easy solution at hand. Perhaps, if we really believe this idea that there is some narcissistic aim behind people seeking our attention, then we believe it is helpful to withhold that attention? I am not sure. But I do know that these ways of thinking and responding to others are wholly unhelpful and often damaging.

I also know that most people hold a vast capacity for compassion. I have experienced love, and kindness, and care from many unexpected places, and these experiences were powerful influences on my recovery. I choose to believe that most people are good, despite what the news reports would have us believe. So, while I’m not quite sure how we got to this place, I do think we can change it.

When I cried out for attention and help.

When I started self-harming and attempting suicide, often with overdoses, I became one of those people labelled as crying for help and seeking attention. I became another just.

I find it difficult and awkward to write about attention-seeking in particular. I wish that I had been more articulate and capable of expressing my distress and my needs. Even though my rational self understands that I communicated the best way that I could with the resources and knowledge that I had, even though I think that the shaming of people who self-harm is abhorrent, still, somehow, some shreds of that shame linger in my own mind about myself. And so this is awkward to write about.

I think the idea of attention-seeking holds a kernel of truth but is grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted. Almost whenever a person’s actions are labelled as attention-seeking, the person is responded to with either ambivalence, disdain or outright judgement and rejection, sometimes even withdrawal of services.

I have felt the ire of medical staff at emergency departments who clearly viewed me as a time waster, as someone less worthy of their time, skill and compassion than the other patients under their care. It was my own fault that I was there. I have been sneered at, I have been stitched up without anaesthetic, I have had a nurse toss a roll of bandages to me and been told to sort myself out.

For a time, I understood this to mean that I needed to communicate more clearly – but sadly for me what this meant was making deeper cuts and more of them, of doubling and then tripling the size of my overdoses. It was a high risk reaction that could have been avoided, if only I hadn’t become another just.

Here is the kernel of truth. There were, without doubt, some times when I self-harmed or made suicide attempts where I wanted a reaction from others.

I guess this is attention-seeking.

Mostly this was only a part of the motivation, and in another article I will write more about the many reasons that I self-harmed and made attempts on my life. But sometimes, seeking attention and help was all of the motivation.

These were times when I was so frightened that I could not hold out any longer, when my pain had reached unbearable levels and yet (this is the important part): no-one seemed to understand or be offering help that made a difference. I wanted to live, but I needed help to do it.

I did not want attention in the sense of a child who ‘acts out’ in order to get Mum to look at her or to give her a cuddle or a smile. Although perhaps, on some level, I was looking for compassion. I could not find compassion for myself, all I had was shame and self-hatred. But I did not want people to just look at me or to use up their valuable time. I wanted—needed—their help. It was attention with an end goal in mind: finding help to find a way to survive my pain.

I was frequently desperate for help. I had tried and tried to ask for it politely, to raise my issues in sessions with professionals, even to write down my desperation and share it, just in case people didn’t understand what I was saying. But nothing seemed to make a difference and no-one seemed to understand. I was convinced that if the doctors could properly understand the horrific, unbearable depth and breadth of my suffering, that they would offer me something better, something new, something that actually helped. There must be a magic pill I hadn’t tried, a magic therapy no-one had offered, a magic ‘something’ that could take away my pain. But I would never have called it a cry for help myself. More like a howl of anguish.

It took me years to learn that almost no-one understood my language of desperation, my cries, howls, pleas, screams that were expressed in blood and pills and nooses and charred and broken skin. My behaviour was widely interpreted as a juvenile and somewhat pathetic attempt to waste medical resources that other people deserved far more than I. While writers are urged to ‘show, don’t tell’, this is not good advice for people in emotional pain who turn up in mental health services. And, incidentally, there are no magic pills or magic therapy anyway.

Some just wishes.

When someone talks about feeling suicidal, or when they attempt suicide, when they self-harm, when they express painful emotions in confronting ways … these are all cries from real people.

My wish is that we stop using the word ‘just’ as an adverb if it means dismissing the pain of other people.

My wish is that any cry from another human is treated with respect, dignity and care.

My wish is that when we hear another person cry out for help, that we simply stop and listen, and offer assistance if wanted. If we don’t know what might help, we can remember that just listening has a healing value all of its own.

My wish is that we all remember that people generally do the best they can, with the knowledge, skills and resources they have. No-one chooses pain. Remembering this can prevent unhelpful judgements and remind us to work harder to understand why a person has been driven to take such extreme measures.

My wish is that we all remind ourselves that the vast majority of people who self-harm have survived terrible traumas, and that self-harm may be the only way we know how to communicate or cope. But we can learn new ways, if given the care and support to learn.

My wish is that emergency departments start employing mental health peer workers who understand self-harm, suicide attempts and anguished desperation. My hope is that these peers are the ones who engage with people in distress and coordinate other responses – and provide training to other hospital staff.

My wish is that no-one, ever, thinks that it is somehow appropriate or therapeutic or professional to ignore another person who is suffering.

My wish is that we remember it is never ‘just’ to minimise the experience of others.

My wish is that we remember the origins of the word just from the Old French juste, meaning righteous and sincere.

Originally published on 21 August, 2015. Re-published 27 August 2019.

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