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.