Don’t read this, it’s just a cry for help!

6 10 2011

Recently, at a family party, I was talking with someone whose friend was training to work at a suicide hotline. (This is the normal turn for family parties. Right?) Another guest didn’t care too much for the idea.

“That’s for people who don’t really mean it. I know people who wanted to kill themselves, and they’re dead. If you’re calling the hotline, it’s just a cry for help.”

It’s one of those clichés we’ve all heard. “It’s a cry for help” or “He’s only doing it for attention.” Somehow, these two concepts have been conflated in a dangerous fashion. We all know that if someone, say a two year old, is doing something for attention, say, throwing a tantrum, we should ignore it and go get a margarita.

A “cry for help” is not the same thing wanting attention. It’s a recognition that there is something very wrong going on with someone, something that they can’t handle on their own. It’s a way of reaching out for support and intervention. Some people are able to do this in a constructive way, by calling a hotline or going into the hospital. Plenty of people aren’t able to do this, due to their mental health, cognitive abilities, or other reasons.

So they “act out.” We see it with kids all the time. They’re angry about their parents divorce, so they start skipping school. They’re traumatized from being abused, so they start using drugs. Some people are depressed, and untreated, so they start hurting themselves.

Cutting seems to be the fashionable “cry for help” these days. I’m never one to buy into that hysteria that you see featured on the Today show or Dr. Phil about the latest teen trends–you know, they’re all blowing each other in the school cafeteria and having “pill parties.” I don’t know how they even have time for their pregnancy pacts and school shootings!

But self-mutilation does seem to have caught on. My younger cousins keep my finger on the pulse of all things emo, and it has become something of a rite of passage. Not something that people do all the time. But lots of them seem to have tried it. Everyone has moments of feeling depressed, misunderstood, or crazy in high school. Emo kids strive to have as many of those moments as possible, so it kind of makes sense.

I remember first hearing about “cutting” when I was about 13. It was on an episode of 7th Heaven. (I admit to that, because I feel that I’m in a safe space here.) It was one of those “special episodes,” where one of the eighteen kids brings home a new best friend, who serves only to teach a lesson, and is then never heard from again. They discover that she’s cutting herself, talk about the warning signs (“I should’ve known! She was wearing long sleeves out of season, keeping to herself more, and seemed moody!” Who talks like that?) and send her on her way. I thought it was weird, until I read an article in 17 magazine. (Again, we’re not judging.)

Like all kids at that age, I had my times of feeling down and like things would never get better. An idea that otherwise would never have crossed my mind did, and I cut my finger. I found that it hurt, I still felt down, and I didn’t care for the sight of blood. So that was that.

This has now become a concern due to all the media attention given to teen suicides. Obviously the attention is not to blame for making kids feel bullied or depressed. But is it possible that it’s planting an idea, a more effective cry for help?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I am pretty confident that the answer isn’t going after the media for paying attention to these deaths, or their friends for memorializing them. We should probably be playing closer attention to those early warning signs, so that when the kids finally get that attention they’re looking for, it isn’t too late.

A girl I’ve written about in the past, Angelica, was a cutter. Her mother and I twice brought her to the emergency room, for this and other troubling behaviors. Both times, the doctors told us that this was “attention-seeking behavior” and generally wasn’t serious. I explained, as not hysterically as I could, that I understood this, but did that matter when she was slashing up her arms for some unknown reason?

Apparently it didn’t. Until things escalated and she was hospitalized, where the truth about her rape and abuse came out.

Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s entirely wrong. It would seem that a lot of people who attempt suicide don’t really want to die. (A rather popular first thought, upon jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge seems to be, “I wish I hadn’t jumped off this bridge.”) They want help. Obviously this doesn’t mean we should let them jump. “But SJ, it’s just a cry for help! Responding to it will only feed their desire for attention!”

Maybe. Maybe not. But if in their quest for attention they’re going to be crushed and swept away in the waves, or accidentally hit an artery and bleed to death as Bullet for my Valentine (thanks emo cousins!) plays in the background, does it really matter? Where does this idea that we should wait for a genuine desire to die come from? We accept the need to early intervention in seemingly everything else (I mean, not in the sense that we should insure for it, but as a concept) but not for depression.

Wanting help, and even wanting attention, are not bad things. We need to stop acting as though they are.

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9 responses

6 10 2011
Vetnita in MN

I always think of kids “acting out” as the steam escaping from a volcano. Pay attention to the little signs because sometimes they really are hiding a massive problem. Kids don’t tend to walk into a SW office and saw in a calm, mature manner that they have issues A, F, and K. They’re KIDS!!!

7 10 2011
socialjerk

Yes, yes, and yes. And not just kids, but also adults who for whatever reason are unable to express what they’re dealing with. I love and am stealing your metaphor.

6 10 2011
KatjaMichelle

The same people who are so dismissive of the “cries for help/attention” are the ones asking “why didn’t he or she ask for help” after a suicide completion

7 10 2011
socialjerk

Exactly. Just like in Catch 22–you get out of the military if you’re crazy, but if you ask to get out of the military, then you can’t be crazy. If you’re asking for help, things can’t be that bad. Until they get worse.

6 10 2011
ECMH Nerd

lord i hear this all the time. “he just does that to get attention. i need him to stop doing it.” and i work with the 0-5 set.

my boss, a brilliant, calm, and experienced person told me once “so why don’t we give them the attention? they must need it for a reason.”

if someone is at the point in their life where there are causing themselves serious physical harm if not death, they need attention, they need something. your young lady is a great example of this…she needed someone to notice her, to talk with her, to help her unpack the chaos in her life.

at the end of the day, if it’s aggressive behavior in a 4 year old, a teen who is cutting themselves, or an adult about to jump, what is the harm in giving them attention? if anything, they need to sort out a solution to the bigger problems.

and by solution i mean understanding what the behavior is a sign or symbol of. a solution is NOT to yell at/ignore my aggressive preschooler, lock up all the pointy objects in the house so the teen can’t get to them, or to simply build a higher protective fence at every bridge.

when we respectfully give people attention, listen, and understand their emotional needs (like through hotlines), we can minimize the self harm.

sorry. i’m climbing off of the soap box. slowly and with no pointy objects nearby.

7 10 2011
socialjerk

I completely agree with your boss. He sounds great! I’m always trying to help parents understand that their kids wanting attention is good and normal. We just want to make sure that they try to get attention in good ways.

And you are always welcome on the soap boax, I spend a great deal of time there myself 🙂

9 10 2011
Rebecca

I really appreciate this post, but something in it irked me. I know it may seem nitpicky, but I really hate the term ‘cutter.’ I hurt myself for eight years, but that doesn’t define who I am.

10 10 2011
socialjerk

It doesn’t seem nitpicky. I’m sorry about that. I try to use inoffensive language (not really, but you know what I mean) but sometimes one gets by me. The girls I worked with who engaged in that behavior always preferred that term, but that could be because they weren’t exposed to an alternative.

I’m glad you enjoyed the rest of the post.

10 10 2011
Rebecca

Thanks for being cool about it 🙂
I think I used that label until I started getting into recovery, so that might be the difference.

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