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When an Overdose Becomes Attention Seeking

Meloncauli is a former nurse and anxiety management therapist. She hopes everyone can take something away from her articles.

Is repeated overdosing a cry for a attention or a cry for help? Can they be the same thing?

Is repeated overdosing a cry for a attention or a cry for help? Can they be the same thing?

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 Is at Risk for 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:

  • Depression
  • Personality Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • 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.

Phoning for help after an overdose is common

Phoning for help after an overdose is common

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.

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Desperate people can feel safer in a hospital bed

Desperate people can feel safer in a hospital bed

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 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.

Attention Seeking?

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 help and care.

It is not unusual for nurses to be on first-name terms with patients who regularly attend the 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.

What Does Attention Seeking Mean?

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?

Alcohol is commonly consumed before an overdose of pills

Alcohol is commonly consumed before an overdose of pills

The Risks of Recurrent Overdoses

  • Not being taken seriously when there is actually a grave underlying problem
  • Losing 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
  • Death

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 disorders, 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.

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

  • 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.

Suicide Help

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.


Courtney on April 30, 2018:

Let me tell you from first hand experience of someone who genuinely had enough. I wont even bother to explain my story of what made me take 40 50mg tramadols two nights ago and now I lay here in awful pain and spent all of yesterday throwing up and falling asleep. People who truly want to die, recurrently try only because they know people have succeeded and they know there is a way but however theyve tried has been the wrong combination. Im now at a point at my life where I need to decide whether to carry on and get back up or try again knowing this pain I am in right now might just happen again if I dont do it right. I appreciated this post but not some of the comments.

Jessica on November 28, 2016:

Thank you for the information. My daughter overdosed last night and because she is 19 the hospital will not give me so much information due to HIPPA law. I've always known she needed help but she never accepts to take it. I do not know what to do how to help her but just be there for her.

Kira on November 25, 2016:

Reading this made me sad. I've had 3 overdoses this year. None of them I wanted to go to the hospital. All 3 times I was forced. My therapist actually called 911. I confided in a friend who is nurse 13 hours away. She called for help to come to me. I ended up in the hospital & forced hospitalization. I met some kind staff & I met some really mean nurses. They were short with me & idk maybe they felt it was attention seeking. I hate attention. I don't even tell people I'm in the hospital. I don't want anyone knowing my business.

I don't have a personality disorder. I have anxiety, depression, PTSD, and a eating disorder. It made me sad to read that people who risk their lives that way probably have no self value or worth. Maybe I'm a minimizer but I don't see it with the same seriousness that others see. I took Xanax to relax. I took alcohol to strengthen the effects. I got so emotional that I took a ton more pills and alcohol. Then I freak out and reach out to make sure I'm fine & well people freak out. One time I went to counseling like that & he called 911. He told me if I do it again, he won't treat me. He said faulty coping mechanisms and harming myself is all I know. Which is true.

It's not about attention or wanting help. It's me taking things into my hands and trying to help myself. It's been 2 months since my last overdose. It's hard. I want to mix those things so that I'm numb and peaceful but I'm afraid that I will overdo it. I'm afraid of losing my doctors. I feel angry that they won't let me cope the way I know how. I'm blind to what's wrong with how I cope. That's why I am getting help. I realized my behaviors are not the norm. None of my friends have done that, 3x in a year or once.

But at least for me it has nothing to do with attention. More to do with self medicating to feel better.

cyrill on December 05, 2014:

Hi all , mental health is a huge problem that will get worse ,there are to many people who think it is all due to weakness .look back in history two world wars to many people where damaged solders and civilians . we did not deal with it at all many called cowards dissgusting .today due to health cuts mental health is on the back burner .There are a lot of people out there who are walking time bombs. Action in the mental health service is needed now wake up we are up to are angles in it. Action not words .

meloncauli (author) from UK on September 10, 2012:

Thanks for your comment Becky. You are right that if someone is determined to commit suicide, they will find a way no matter what.

The only thing I would say, is that often people are afraid of their own suicidal thoughts and some people are impulsive by nature. Couple those things together and it could be a recipe for disaster where suicide is concerned. Personally, I don't think there is enough acknowledgment on impulsive attempted suicides in the realms of depression. One has more time to intervene if the sufferer admits to 'plans' of suicide.

Thanks for dropping by.

Rfordin from Florida on September 10, 2012:

You know I've always said if someone is going to actually commit the act of suicide they will succeed and no one will ever know until the body is discovered. Kind of cynical on my part but I've dealt with many people who "threaten" suicide. As a psych. grad your taught if anyone even mentions suicide you should act and do what is necessary. As an individual I'm afraid I feel that if they mention it there not as serious about it. Great article voted interesing and shared!


meloncauli (author) from UK on September 03, 2012:

Thanks gsidley. Yes, I agree. Again it's a case of not enough communication and involvement from the service user. Too many meds, not enough talk!

Dr. Gary L. Sidley from Lancashire, England on September 03, 2012:

An excellent hub from someone who clearly knows the health system very well.

I believe a key first step to helping people to move on from self-defeating patterns of repeated self-harm is to develop a formulation (or map) of the person's individual problem. Such a map would need to be developed collaboratively with the self-harmer and help to explain the factors maintaining the problem.

There can be many reasons for repeated self-harm: communication of distress; influencing the behaviour of others; escape from an intolerable situation; self-punishment and mood-regulation. Being aware of the maintaining factor can give pointers as to how to help the person move forward.

meloncauli (author) from UK on August 29, 2012:

Thanks for your comment. Drug addiction is another huge issue for overdose and my sympathies are with you. I have lost two friends many years ago to accidental overdose by illicit drugs. I also had a friend who's daughter was an addict and she overdosed leaving a beautiful 3 year old daughter. The effect on her mother and the daughter was devastating. I send my prayers for your healing.

Kristi Sharp from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota. on August 28, 2012:

Well, this is more than close to home - it's inside the house. My beloved sister died from an overdose but there wasn't a history of repeated overdosing. She was an addict. Very good hub. All I can think to say is, wow. -K

meloncauli (author) from UK on August 28, 2012:

I totally agree and the person has to want things to change and work well alongside therapists etc. It is very difficult for those close to the person. Thanks for your comment aa I like people to talk about experiences. The more we hear and read about these things the more awareness we have and that's half the battle.

catgypsy from the South on August 28, 2012:

I totally agree that she is unstable and needs help. I did a poor job of explaining the situation...too complicated to write in a comment box...but what I was trying to say is that on one hand she seems almost "proud" of being crazy (her words) so she obviously knows she has problems, but doesn't feel she needs to try to work on her problems. It's a very complex, confusing situation, and I probably shouldn't have even brought it up.

I totally agree with what you're saying in your hub and it is important that people don't take repeated suicide attempts lightly. But I guess I was pointing out that sometimes, even with them getting professional help, it is hard to know how to respond to someone like this. Hard for their loved ones to even know what to do or how to respond to them. It's a sad situation for everybody.

meloncauli (author) from UK on August 28, 2012:

Hi and thanks for your comment. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but something perhaps I didn't make clear ( and should have pointed out), is this:

Even IF a person were doing it solely out of a pleasure to gain attention, then this person is also very sick and needs help just as much as anyone else. It is so abnormal to feel you need this kind of attention. Your neighbour's daughter will have a reason for this, either conscious or unconsciously. If she is excusing her "bad" behaviour ( not sure what the 'bad' is), by saying sh'es crazy, then she probably doesn' t understand why herself? That's a sorry state to be in. It doesn't detract from the fact that she needs help. When you say she enjoys the fact she's been classified as unstable, that alone is a sign that she indeed is unstable!

catgypsy from the South on August 27, 2012:

This hit close to home for me. My neighbor's daughter has taken overdoses three times in the past year. Her daughter is in her late fifties. Her mother and I are close friends and have talked about it a lot. While we know she has psychological problems, we truly believe she does this mostly for attention and now tries to excuse any bad behavior she exhibits by saying she's crazy. It's a very sad and confusing situation. She is now seeing a psychiatrist and is on meds, but she doesn't seem to want to get any better. She seems to enjoy the fact that she's been classified as unstable and tries to use it to her advantage. I agree these people need help, but there's some kind of fine line in there that's hard to define. Anyway, great hub meloncauli!

meloncauli (author) from UK on August 27, 2012:

Thanks Leah. Sadly the first professionals a person who overdoses will meet are the nurses who are medically trained. Perhaps general nurse training needs to include even more information on mental health issues.

Leah Lefler from Western New York on August 27, 2012:

I love the way you make a distinction between seeking attention and attention seeking, meloncauli. I can see how hospital staff would become annoyed with repeated overdoses, but anyone who repeatedly overdoses truly needs psychological help and support.

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