When an Overdose Becomes Attention Seeking
People from all walks of life, and from all around the world, may attempt to take their own life—sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Suicide may feel like the only way out when problems have become overwhelming; however, it’s not an easy thing to actually carry out, and for some people it has to be a well-planned affair. Many people may have already voiced their intentions to others. Other people, though, do not disclose their true feelings, and their loved ones may be left in a state of shock and disbelief.
This article will discuss the attempts at taking one’s life with particular regard to taking an overdose of medication—not once but repeatedly. Sometimes known as self-poisoning or another form of self-harm, the people who overdose on a regular basis are labeled and open to discrimination by those whose job it is to help them. The families of such people can be affected greatly by their inability to understand the dangerous acts of their loved ones. There are those who will have great pity for these individuals, but equally there are those who will tire of their needs.
There are clearly those who intend to commit suicide by overdose, but repeated attempts will raise the alarm to professionals. The opinion will probably be that the problem is a behavioural one with no intent other than to say “help me."
Who Takes Repeated Overdoses?
Regular attendees to the accident and emergency department after an overdose of medication, tend to vary in age. It is however, a much more prevalent occurrence with younger people of either sex. Some mental health disorders are also closely linked with suicidal behaviour such as:
- Personality Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
It is also noted that those who have a dependence on drugs or alcohol are more likely to repeatedly take an overdose, with or without a mental health diagnosis.
The Behaviour of Repeated Overdoses
If we look at a possible scenario as an example we may see how this behaviour develops.
Ann, aged 19 years, has a history of depression and anxiety disorders. She was abused as a child and has had problems maintaining relationships with her family, friends and her current boyfriend. She lives alone, is unemployed and is taking medication for her depression and anxiety.
Today, her boyfriend has dumped her yet again and she seeks solace with a bottle of wine. She becomes weepy and her problems overwhelm her. She starts to blame herself for everything, from her past to the present. She takes around twenty painkillers washed down with wine. This first overdose causes her to panic after a short time and she phones for help. She actually felt like she wanted to die when she took the overdose of pills but the reality has now hit her and she has become frightened and called the emergency services.
She is taken away by ambulance to the accident and emergency department. En route the paramedics show concern and sympathy for her plight. When she is received by the doctor and nurses in the casualty room, she is told that because the pills haven’t been taken too long ago, she will have to take a drink made up of charcoal. Blood tests are done and she is put on an intravenous drip as a precautionary measure. She is told she will have to see the duty psychiatrist and will be kept in hospital, at least overnight.
In this case, as in many cases, at the point of taking the overdose there was great suicidal intent. Though the decision to act may only have taken a few seconds, the repercussions for Ann are great. She survived this attempt and is relieved. She realises she didn’t want to die but she feels that somehow it helped her. Because of this overdose, the psychiatrist has increased her medication and lying in that hospital bed felt safe. She felt she had no one to support her on the night of the overdose but she was wrong. It might have taken an overdose but she did get support! She took something from that night and it was positive.
The kind of scenario with Ann can be enough to sow the seeds for further overdoses. It is not that the visit to the casualty room causes her to take further overdoses but that she has recognized how to get help quickly. We know there are other ways to seek help, but she now knows that as long as she calls for help, or makes sure someone knows of her actions, she will be saved, made to feel safe, and get the attention she feels she needs.
This is where misinterpretation and negative attitudes can be encountered, because as quickly as the person who overdoses can become blasé about the action of overdosing, then so can those who offer the help and care. It is not unusual for nurses to be on first name terms with patients who regularly attend hospital after repeatedly overdosing. Nurses have opinions, and sadly some see repeated overdoses as attention seeking only. Some get impatient, especially when the department is busy and those other patients haven’t purposefully caused their need for help.
I do not wish to paint the wrong picture in this article so let’s dig deeper into what attention seeking actually means.
Attention seeking is the term we commonly hear in mental health especially with regard to a personality disorder diagnosis. Attention seeking to the layman most likely means that the person is enjoying attention and wants to be the centre of it. Is seeking attention the same thing? If we were to use that term instead, then would we be more likely to consider that the person is actually crying out for help? Anyone who enters a casualty department is usually seeking attention…medical attention. They need help and they have sought the help they need. It is the fact that intentionally and repeatedly overdosing is perceived as a choice that poses the problem. Why would anyone want to gamble with their life?
The Risks of Repeated Overdosing
- Not being taken seriously when there is actually a grave underlying problem
- Losing the relationships with friends and family through frustration and ignorance
- Being labeled as having a personality disorder
- The medication and possibly alcohol, causing clouded thinking and getting help too late
- Losing consciousness and choking on vomit
- Damage to internal organs
There is still much stigma both in and out of mental health services, attached to the diagnosis of a personality disorder, despite the fact that it is the most diagnosed mental health problem. There are various types of personality disorder but they all encompass emotional and behavioural traits that are not accepted as “the norm." Being given the label of personality disorder alone actually tells the person that they have an “illness." This can be taken two ways. It can make a person feel better and justified in their behaviour or it can feel alarming and embarrassing.
Cries for Help vs. Attention Seeking
Because personality disorders are expected to react dramatically and negatively in life, is it too easy to also accept the behaviour of repeated overdoses as “acting out” and “attention seeking”? People don’t decide to behave this way and there is usually a severe underlying emotional problem, often stemming from childhood. Address the symptoms or the original underlying problem? Of course both elements should be addressed but often the underlying problems get neglected because it is easier to medicate. Medication masks symptoms and makes life more tolerable for all involved.
If anyone feels the need to repeatedly harm or poison themselves in order to solve their immediate problem, then it makes sense to assume that their needs are not being met. It is a sad fact that a person who gets into an overdose cycle is making a statement. Help me! It is far different from the picture of someone who enjoys being the centre of attention. To say that someone is attention seeking in the medical sense, is implying that they may have a condition known as Munchausen syndrome, in which they assume or pretend the role of being desperately ill.
Cry for Help or Attention Seeking?
Before reading this article did you believe that repeated overdoses are -
It is difficult and sad for nursing staff to see the same sufferers regularly causing harm to themselves, but it is ultimately down to psychiatrists and therapists to get to the root problem. Unless the underlying and genuine reason for wanting help is addressed, the repeated overdoses simply lose their true meaning. To take such risks with your own life also depicts someone who has no self value or worth.
One has to have many psychological problems to take repeated overdoses and it is a picture of a person who is extremely desperate and lost. People who can’t fix themselves and are in a bad place will find a way of seeking help to save them from themselves and their problems. This warrants huge sympathy and not the discriminatory label of attention seeker. Every single overdose attempt must be taken seriously, as it is dangerous to assume a person will not be successful next time!
- Suicide - Facts - NHS Choices
Suicide is a leading cause of death, particularly in young people, both in England and worldwide. Find the facts about suicide.
- Samaritans Home Page
Samaritans provides confidential emotional support 24/7 to those experiencing despair, distress or suicidal feelings.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Suicide Prevention Crisis Hotline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255): Suicide hotline, 24/7 free and confidential, nationwide network of crisis centers
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.