“Attention seeking” is good. Stop shaming people for it

This blog post by my brother is worth a read (in fact his whole blog is, but I’m going to focus on that particular post just now). In the second half he brings up things that I’ve thought about before, related to social media and mental health. He points out that making negative posts online when you’re struggling is sometimes frowned upon, and that people who do so are often labelled as attention seekers, something that I’ve observed as well.

I’ve always thought that the “attention seeking” accusation in particular is an odd one. Surely seeking attention is exactly what we’re trying to encourage depressed people to do when it gets too much to deal with on their own? There are any number of mental health awareness campaigns out there these days, and the core message of pretty much all of them is something along the lines of: don’t suffer in silence, don’t bottle up your feelings, reach out and talk to someone when you feel down. If we’re serious about that message (which we really should be), we’re going to have to accept that it will mean seeing things we might not be comfortable with on social media from time to time.

Some people seem to have a curiously black and white view of mental illness sufferers, as if we can be neatly divided into two groups: on one side the “moaners” who just complain incessantly about their problems and are never going to get any better, and on the other the more positive people who are bravely and quietly putting in the work required to get better. In my experience it doesn’t work like that at all. God knows I’ve done a lot of moaning in my time (mostly on specialist forums but occasionally on regular social media), but I’ve also put a lot of work into trying to get better, even at times when it felt completely hopeless.

Other people I know are the same; there is no great divide. The people who are moaning helplessly one day might be pouring their effort into recovery a few hours or days later when they feel a little better, and even the most dedicated positive thinker needs to vent from time to time. In fact, if anything I’d say the people I’ve known who never expressed their negative feelings are probably less likely to get better, because they seem to be less in touch with what’s going on in their heads and more likely to be in denial about their problems.

Maybe some people are fine with the idea of talking about mental health, but think that social media is the wrong forum, and that those sort of discussions should be kept for family and close friends and professional therapists. That’s all very well, but not everyone has those options. Some people’s families and friends aren’t sympathetic to these issues. Some people have no family or close friends. As for professional therapists, NHS waiting times for them are ridiculous and not everyone can afford to go private. Finally, some people (myself included) might simply find it easier to be open online than they do face-to-face.

The downsides to being too negative in public are often pointed out: you’ll drive people away, you’ll just wallow in your problems and become overwhelmed by negativity, you’ll regret revealing such personal stuff later on. What’s rarely brought up is that there are also significant downsides to not talking about it. The main one, in my experience, is that if you’re going through massive turmoil inside your head, it’s basically impossible to forge any kind of meaningful connection to another person if they don’t know about it.

When I was first suffering from social anxiety and depression, I followed the standard advice of trying to meet people at social events and meetup-type groups. I would dutifully go along to as many of those as I could, then try to pretend as best I could that I was a normal person and didn’t feel like I had a huge aching void inside me. To put it bluntly, it was a total waste of time. I hated every minute, I felt horrifically out of place, and I never succeeded in making a friend that way.

Things changed dramatically when I stopped trying to hide what I was going through and started actually opening up to people instead, regardless of how negative I must have been sounding. Within weeks I had made several good friends, some of whom I was still in touch with a decade later, and within months I had been… ahem… more than friends with a few people as well.

Sure, it’s a lot nicer if mental illness isn’t a huge part of your life, but sometimes it is. And when it is, the only successful way I’ve found of building a meaningful friendship or relationship is to share that part of you along with the rest. Of course given the choice it might have been nicer to base those relationships on something more positive, but at the time there was simply no other choice. All the more positive stuff seemed to pale into insignificance compared with what was going on in my head, and trying to interact with people based on it felt shallow and dishonest. It was a choice between revealing the negative stuff or not having any meaningful interactions with people at all.

(The other option, I guess, is to recover from the mental illness first and only then seek out friendships and relationships. Maybe that would work, though I’m not sure it ever would have for me. It’s a lot more difficult to overcome these sorts of problems when you feel completely alone, and it’s difficult to start feeling like you’re a valid, fully fledged member of the human race when you have no friends and no love life).

This has gone off at a bit of a tangent, but I think it still has relevance to the original point about social media. Basically, sharing how we’re feeling, whether in person or online, is a way of building connections with people, probably the only way of building genuine connections. When we make certain people feel like they can’t share their feelings, we’re excluding them from building those connections, quite likely at a time when they need that more than ever. Worse still, we are invalidating them and likely making them feel as if they shouldn’t even have those feelings, which can be surprisingly destructive. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

2 thoughts on ““Attention seeking” is good. Stop shaming people for it

  1. This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations, a lot of people encourage us to “be open” yet draw the line when you mention something “icky” like MH problems.

    I think that a lot of people have the view of MH problems that everything goes away after some tea and sympathy then get annoyed that you aren’t “over it” after investing time in you. Well these things are not at all that simple and despite our best efforts sometimes nothing helps, sometimes we have to muddle through.

    I certainly think there is a lot to be said for writing things down – there’s a lot of psychological evidence that journaling is very helpful as the mere act of writing things down helps the mind sort things out (see Richard Wiseman in particular for a very interesting take on that subject). Now a lot of people might say, “yes but don’t do it on social media” and I would say, “why the hell not?” if you are comfortable with it then do so, if people don’t appreciate it then they can scroll on by! For some people it might be the only lifeline they have so let’s not judge anyone for being open about their struggles.

    Your point about recovering first and then forming relationships is interesting – you are right that it may seem the logical way around however it is most likely doomed to failure. When I sought treatment for CPTSD one of the first things I was told was that I would need a good support network around me otherwise I would struggle to get through the process so yes sometimes you need to find the right people to help you through with the recovery process. We are, after all, pack animals and work best when we work together.

    • I totally agree. I think a lot of people are fine with the idea of talking about mental health problems in theory, but when they’re confronted with how messy, illogical, long-drawn-out and repetitive it can be in practice, they don’t like it. And sadly some of them then find it easier to start thinking “They’re not really trying to get better, they’re just attention seeking” than to accept the reality that even people who try their hardest can end up suffering for a long time through no fault of their own.

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