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Is Your Mental Illness Made Up For Attention?

July 24, 2015
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An article published on Thought Catalog, apathetically entitled  9 Signs Your Mental Illness Is Made Up For Attention, earlier this month has received a huge amount of backlash due to it’s controversial nature. Although the piece itself isn’t particularly original or groundbreaking, it has been both criticised and praised by hundreds of readers who believe the content either raises a valid point about individuals who feign mental health issues or trivialises those who suffer with genuine mental illness.

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Like millions around the world, and what appears to be the majority of commenters on this article, I’m diagnosed with a mental illness. I won’t bore you with the details because it’s really quite boring, but in short I’ve been in therapy and/or on medication since I was seventeen. Based on my crazy-credentials I should be offended by the piece, right?

But I’m not. I’m not writing with the aim of dissecting everything Alexis Caputo wrote and calling her dumb, because really it feels like she wrote this as a personal jab to someone she knows rather than as a well considered and constructed theory about society. I’m writing this because the premise is actually quite interesting:

Do people make up mental illnesses for attention?

I explored my opinions on a related topic in ‘On Romanticising Mental Illness‘, although at the time I was yet to realise that I was one of those very individuals that seem to be so prominent today who romanticised mental illness as a teenager. That was a real kick in the teeth.

Let me explain.

If you were a teenager in the Emo era like myself, chances are you’ll have experienced the deranged and devastating rise of young adults appropriating mental illness. Where mental health issues where once considered taboo, depression, self-harm and contemplating suicide suddenly became fashionable. These serious problems were as easily donned as skinny jeans and heavy eyeliner, and we ate it up.

The worrying affects of ’emo’ may not have been unprecedented and this is entirely anecdotal, but for many children growing up in the early 2000’s it was our first experience of subcultures, and we embraced it like generations before us had embraced being mods, rockers, hippies, goths and so on.

Worse still, this wave of brazen melancholy collided with the rise of social media sites and instant messaging. Whilst I’m sure many people used Myspace, for example, to keep in contact with friends and meet new people around the world, those of us in the throws of teenage hysteria often used the social media giant to make displays about how sad and lonely we were. Not a day went by without someone sharing a moody picture of themselves or posting bulletins about how hard life was. Of course, the fact we adopted such a lifestyle shows that we weren’t all feeling fantastic in the first place, but in many ways it began to feel like a competition: who is the saddest? Who’s had the worst experiences? Who is closest to killing themselves?

Professor Stephen Briggs, a clinician in the adolescent department of the Tavistock Clinic told British newspapers at the time: “with mobile phones, the internet and Facebook you can create a virtual world that means you need never be alone. It means that you don’t ever have to be out of sight — and that doesn’t allow an adolescent to experience that sense of being a bit separate, of finding one’s self. It means you don’t have a chance to mature on your own; to know who you are.”

Throughout our teenage years we are already predisposed to volatile and angsty behaviour, so by mixing those natural inclinations with these dreary habits and the ability to be seen and heard by millions of people around the world we created a cocktail of destructive behaviour that is still continuing today.

I left high school in 2008, so I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be in school these days. That said, I often see headlines about and knew of young adults who have killed themselves, and there are hundreds of kids online (cough Tumblr cough) tagging their short outbursts of melancholy with stuff like ‘clinical depression’, ‘should I kill myself?’ and ‘I wish I was dead’. When I read these posts on the internet, I can’t help but ask myself: are this many young adults really depressed, or are the echoes of pseudo-depression exhibitionism continuing to spread amongst teenagers?

If those heady days of emo-dom are anything to go by, yes people do make up mental illnesses for attention. I knew countless individuals who would turn up to school with their sleeves strategically placed to subtly display the cuts they’d given themselves the night before. According to the BBC, the amount of British children admitted to hospital due to self-inflicted harm increased by a third between 2002 and 2007, from 11,891 in 2002/3 to 15,955 in 2006/7. Overall, there were over 70,000 admissions throughout the five year period.

Those statistics are deeply worrying, but now is perhaps the time to mentioned, and believe me I’m ashamed to say this, that I was one of those people who would occasionally whack out a razor, although I was always sure to hide it. Did I do that as a way of releasing inner angst that I had no other outlet for? Nope, I did it because everyone else was and I was an asshat teenager who wanted to fit in.

Of course, some children may self-harm for more serious reasons, but because of my experience and the fact many people who were deeply involved in the emo ~scene~ (not to be confused with Scene, another subculture I wasn’t cool enough to be in) are completely fine now has led me to believe that many people, especially teenagers, are actually quite likely to use depression and anxiety as tools to gain attention. These people aren’t bad people, they’re simply plucking on a chord that’s drawn people in for decades. If you pretend to be a victim you reap the benefits without having to suffer: people will be compassionate, they won’t be so hard on you, they will pay attention to you, and they can’t prove that you’re not mentally ill, can they?

How Can You Tell If Someone’s Faking Mental Illness?

Although my affliction of being bonkers would later be verified and I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a young child, at fourteen I was yet to really begin experiencing in full force what would later come. As many people in the comments of Alexis’ articles have suggested, perhaps those who fake mental illnesses for attention do actually have a mental illness, and this could be true. What I and many others were doing, and what many people appear to be doing today, could be equated to an extremely mild version of a mental illness called Factitious Disorder.

According to MayoClinic, Factitious Disorder is: “a serious mental disorder in which someone deceives others by appearing sick, by purposely getting sick, or by self-injury. Factitious disorder symptoms can range from mild (slight exaggeration of symptoms) to severe (previously called Munchausen syndrome). The person may make up symptoms or even tamper with medical tests to convince others that treatment, such as high-risk surgery, is needed.”

However, MayoClinic also makes it clear that Factitious Disorder is considered rare, so it’s hard to believe that even those who feign mental illness regularly are actually mentally ill, at least not with this condition. Alas, this simply makes it even harder to discover who is mentally ill and who is just using terms like depression flippantly.

Having both feigned depression and lived with genuine depression, it’s really quite easy to know the difference from within, but it’s a lot harder to tell from the outside. This is where Alexis’ piece wades in. She writes:

5. When it’s convenient, your illness takes a back seat. Unless something really fun is coming up and you manage to get it together, or you want to impress a date by pretending that you’re really active and outgoing and happy! Then you’re fine :)”

A bit sassy but she actually has a point here, amidst a bunch of less convincing arguments. I could transition between being moody and being happy within about thirty seconds depending on what the situation called for; it was easy. Mostly because that’s what mentally healthy people do. Alexis continues:

8. You constantly post baiting things so that people will ask what’s wrong. “It’s been a bad day. :(” “Not feeling good.” “Ugh, I can’t even.” Yeah, you’re posting those statuses because you want people to ask how you are, and you want to vent about it. But everyone has problems, and using the “feel sorry for me” card over and over again is incredibly irritating for everyone around you.”

Obviously, not everybody posting these sorts of statuses and tweets is claiming to be depressed, but if faux-mental 14-year-old me felt a bit lonely or listened to a sad song, you better believe she was going to post a Myspace Bulletin about it. Still, people with mental illness can and should also share their feelings when they feel able to, but within the current climate they’ll most probably be labelled an attention seeker. My unstable self won’t post anything online, I’m preoccupied, but that’s just me – there’s no reason why others who are struggling shouldn’t reach out for help, and you’d have to be an awful person to attack a vulnerable individual for doing so. But how do you tell the mentally ill from the naturally emotional?

Really, the only way you can tell whether someone falls within the lines of being mentally stable is to be them, you can’t make a judgement based on their actions online. Overall, it’s probably best to stay out of it. If someone is, in your opinion, feigning mental illness like Alexis describes in her article, and you are not a close friend or relative, then leave them be. If you are close to the individual, try to speak with them in a calm way devoid of melodrama.

What Happens When You Fake Mental Illness?

The problem caused by those who claim to be depressed when they’re simply sad is that individuals who are genuinely suffering are increasingly invalidated, doubted and trivialised. I’ve been told numerous times that I’m faking it, I was even accused by one nurse of pretending to be ill so I can get meds – perhaps this was some sort of karma for being a kid who cried depression throughout my early teens.

I believed for a long time that I had manifested severe depression wilfully whilst in my emo stage. I often berated myself in my later teenage years for making myself depressed to the point where I couldn’t get out anymore. This may still have been a significant contributor to my issues now – although it’s most probably due to the huge amount of direct relatives who were/are nutters –  which only makes me more worried about those who claim they have depression like it’s a super power to get attention.

In fact, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology suggested that people who fake mental illness can actually convince themselves that they are suffering from genuine symptoms.

“If you play the role of having a disease, then at some point the symptoms may become very real to you,” psychologist Harald Merckelbach who was involved in the study says. “For example, when you talk about whiplash or chronic fatigue disorder, you can imagine a patient who starts out playing these symptoms, but when he is asked by a physician, ‘Do you also have this or that?’ and the questions are posed over and over again, the patient may lose sight of the fact the they are playing a role.”

I’m so pleased that our society is finally beginning to accept mental illnesses like depression and anxiety as valid causes for concern, it’s just a shame that the terms are being used by anyone and everyone like it’s trendy.

I just wish people who appropriate mental illness would realise that they don’t need to pretend to get attention. Being sad is not depression, feeling the need to straighten cutlery on a table occasionally is not OCD, being hyperactive is not ADHD: but struggling to deal with healthy, natural emotions can be difficult and it’s okay to ask for help without turning them into mental health issues.

If you feel like you can’t cope and may need to speak to a professional, please don’t hesitate to do so. From my experience, in the UK you can go to your GP and they will refer you to the mental health services. If you don’t want to do that there are also helplines that you can call.

Lastly, if you were an Emo Kid (non-conforming as can be) who didn’t buy into the whole ‘depression and self-harm is cool’ thing, or y’know, you were alive and liked the music, I done gone made a playlist:

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