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Looking for Attention: Passing Judgement on the Mentally Ill

Mental illness may be "all in your head," but that doesn't make it less real than having cancer or diabetes. And if someone you know is "vaguebooking" or posting a depressed status, they might be just trying to reach out, to feel less alone in the battle against their own mind.
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We've all heard it before. "Oh, she just needs to stop whining. She's only looking for attention."

"I hate vaguebooking. It's just attention-whoring. I'm going to block and hide him."

"God, she NEVER shuts up about feeling depressed. If she's that depressed, she needs to get help. No one else wants to hear it. She just wants attention."

These things are cardinal sins in the social media world. If your life is too sad, you're being dramatic. If it's too happy, you're hiding something. Our society is so quick to judge, so quick to cut someone out of their lives for doing or saying the wrong thing or giving off the wrong impression. We forget there's a human being behind the screen, someone with thoughts and feelings, and write them off as quickly as possible. You don't fit my worldview, so you're worthless.

Sometimes, I feel like social media has actually thrown the members of the human race further apart from each other, as opposed to bringing us together. Sure, I've got friends I haven't talked to in years on my Facebook, but how many of them have hidden my posts because they don't like what I'm saying or doing or the cat picture I just linked from my Instagram? How many watch me, wondering if I'm a "trainwreck" that will go off the rails? I don't think I give that impression, but who knows?

Social media is one thing. Society is quite another. In my five years as someone who was severely depressed, I saw it in people's eyes when I made a misstep, shared too much, acted too out of the ordinary. The whispers went around the dorm. "She's looking for attention. God, I hate attention-whores." And when I shut myself off from the world, hid in my dorm room for days on end without coming out, the whispers got even louder. "God, is she insane or something? This has to be for attention. No normal person would do this."

Not normal. Attention-whoring. These are things people who are mentally ill hear every single day, from a world that doesn't want to understand their disease. No, it's all in your head. If you would just be happier -- but oh, not too happy, that's lying. If you would just try harder -- but no, not too hard, because then you're faking. If you'd just act NORMAL, God, why is it so hard for you to act normally?

Mental illness isn't something that's controlled. It's actually one of the most uncontrollable diseases there is. Sure, you can take medication, or go to talk therapy, learn the cues that signal paranoia or depression or psychosis. You can be invisible in a crowd, work days without anyone knowing how hard it is for you, without the curious and judgmental stares. And then something slips. You over share too much. You have a breakdown in public. And everyone's staring at you, wondering just why you can't be normal and fit in, just like everyone else in the world.

You've got to be doing it for attention. There's no other answer.

The fact is -- mentally ill people ARE doing it for attention. They're just not doing it for the attention the world imagines they are. Mentally ill people are not complaining or being upset on social media to annoy everyone. They might be doing it because they have no one to talk to and it's 3 a.m. There's a world of people on social media 24/7. Maybe someone is there to listen.

They might be doing it because they feel like they can't go on unless they tell someone just how bad it is. They might be crying because life is too hard to handle right now. They might be hiding because they know that being around people is going to trigger those judgemental reactions. They might be cutting because they can't feel. And the attention they seek is the attention and caring attitude of another human being who just might be able to understand.

Mental health stigma is real. Employers who look at you with pity, reducing your workload subtly if they find out you're mentally ill. Being fired for not being perfectly cheerful and stable at all times in the workplace. Taking too much time off for appointments and hospital stays, trying to control the beast that lives in your brain. Losing friends who think you're too hard to handle. The curious stares of people on the street, pointing at homeless people, pointing at someone crying. The many barbed jokes in movies, TV shows, books. "You're insane." "You're crazy." The way that not being perfectly mentally stable is almost a crime, and in some cases, can get you killed.

Yes, mentally ill people are doing it for attention. They want to advocate for themselves, to make it okay to be the way they are. Some of them want to bring attention to their illnesses and make it easier to live in this world. Some of them just want to be treated like human beings, after centuries of being treated like Others, like things that are dangerous, not even human.

And the everyday stigma of knowing the world thinks you're faking, that it's all in your head, that it's just for attention, causes many people with mental illness to never access help. They go their whole lives believing they're the problem, until something happens and they can't go on.

Mental illness may be "all in your head," but that doesn't make it less real than having cancer or diabetes. And if someone you know is "vaguebooking" or posting a depressed status, they might be just trying to reach out, to feel less alone in the battle against their own mind.

In the end, no one knows why someone posts or acts the way they do. We can't read each other's minds. Even if you're thinking, "But I know someone who really does do it for attention!" do you actually know that's why he's doing it? Can you actually read his mind and trace his thought process? Or are you assuming, casting your own bias and annoyances on someone reaching out for help?

We're all in this together. And "doing it for attention" might just cause someone to notice, to care, and to act.

For more by Elizabeth Hawksworth, click here.

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