• Victoria Chwa

What’s wrong with wanting attention? – Sadfishing, Social Media and Mental Health

This post involves discussion of mental health including but not limited to depression, anxiety, self harm and OCD, as well as effects of social media and analyses of sadfishing/’attention-seeking’ behaviour. Please be aware that I am not a licensed therapist. Information presented here is not to be taken as prescriptive or as medical advice in any way.
You are worthy and important. Please reach out to a professional for support, clarification and proper advice. If you are in Singapore, click here to access a list of helplines. If you are anywhere else in the world, click through for Global Mental Health Resources or International Mental Health Helplines. If you or anyone you know is in need of immediate help, please do not hesitate to contact emergency services. Let’s stand together, for each other.

I have been struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for as long as I can remember, despite only being diagnosed in recent years. Sometimes, I talk about my experience on Instagram Story.

Can my behaviour be construed as attention-seeking? Yes, it can. Does that make me wrong, depraved or, in any way, dishonourable? No, or at least, not likely.

Consider, now, a teenager who self-harms and posts online images of themselves committing the act.

Will their behaviour be judged as attention-seeking? Most definitely. Will that judgment, however, lead to negative evaluations of this person’s worth as a human being? Well, if the past is any indication, yes.

The question that remains is the distinction between the two. What makes us more readily judge a person’s value and morale?

Mental Illness and Normality: Society’s Need for Validation

There is no denying that mental health is a health problem. It is as major a wellness crisis as any physical ailment.

Though there exists people who dismiss mental health as a myth, I think their proportion is small enough to hold little bearing on the perceived severity of mental illness, not to mention that such dismissals may be a sign of a mental health problem in and of itself. We shan’t go into that today.

The situational comparisons above illustrate one of the many repellent habits society has, and that is the premature judgment of individuals who so much as fall an inch out of the realms of normality.

Here in Singapore, there has been a rise in campaigns dedicated to ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Yet, a survey conducted by the local National Council of Social Service (NCSS) still found that more than half of all respondents were unwilling to live with, live nearby or work with a person with a mental health condition. This is despite the respondents agreeing on the need to reduce mental health stigma. Very clearly, we can see that there is an inertia to educate and correct oneself; an inertia which is self-sustaining because people like their biases.

Speculatively, it would seem that mental illnesses constitute unseen struggles that are not always visually or easily verifiable. Perhaps, for this reason, its lack of visibility has become warranted. Unless someone is having an attack in public, people generally cannot tell who has a mental health condition, and that instils a fear which unravels further in their minds. Which conditions are severe enough to threaten lives? Or the perceived peace?

Since they cannot separate all individuals with mental health conditions from accessing the larger societal resources (because of the very obvious human rights issues that spells), they might begin attempting it in other less-evidential ways. This could look like the directing of everyone with symptoms to one contained institution, or the depiction of certain conditions in very specific, fear-mongering ways (like Schizophrenia being uncontrollable and dangerous) and, of course, the labelling of overt displays as attention-seeking, instantly deplorable and deserving of cancelling.

Analysing Societal Perceptions

Let’s return now to the opening situational comparisons. My talking about OCD online possibly differs from the teenager’s posting of self-harm in a few ways.

Where severity is concerned, while both OCD and self harm are innately critical, my speaking about OCD appears less dire than a visual display of self harm.

Also, speaking about OCD appears less serious and is easier to dismiss and forget, which consequently attracts less attention – flak or not. Posting self-harm is more directly perceivable as a threat to the viewer’s comfort. This is harder to dismiss. It puts the viewer in a position where they either see the act as a threat to their own safety or to the societal peace they have enjoyed.

Incidentally, it is also possible that, because of a lack of consideration for the underlying cause behind the self-harm, viewers might register the act as the poster’s own conscious desire. The mindset of the viewer might seep into discriminatory realms where, because social media is public domain and mental illness “should be a private matter”, any responsibility of pain is then placed on the poster, including the receipt of unwarranted criticism. The posting of self-harm and any public display of mental illness is, therefore, more readily regarded as sadfishing.

Sadfishing and Cancel Culture

Sadfishing is, as defined by Psychology Today, the “posting [of] emotional or dramatic personal content to gain sympathy or attention from the online community”.

Aside from the insistence that mental health conditions and all things of a concerning nature remain out of sight and out of mind, there seems to be a collective negligence for the intention of the poster.

Sadfishing is manipulation. It is an intentional pretence in order to get attention from public empathy. The trouble is, intention is hard to verify and most people aren’t fans of confrontation.

Since there is no way to authenticate the distress of the poster, when a post is labeled as sadfishing, that label is a subjective judgment made by the viewer. However this lack of truth becomes secondary when a group of viewers develop the same judgment, then that judgment becomes assumed truth.

If and when this group of viewers consist of people who are personally acquainted or close to the poster, the closer they are, the worse the impact will be on the poster’s mental wellbeing. Therein lies the reinforcement of society’s baseless cancel culture.

What’s the big deal?

Assuming something is sadfishing automatically invalidates the poster’s experience. This assumption requires no evidence, insight or skill, but leaves plenty of room for others to jump onto the bandwagon, simply because the connection appears obvious enough to believe without needing too much mental work.

So, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is the impact of premature sadfishing judgments amount to bullying, victim-blaming and beyond.

In addition to the risk of re-traumatisation, the poster is less likely to seek help for fear of worsened criticisms. If they are already on therapy or medication, their reliance on the medication or external intervention might increase.

If the side effects of the medication is not dangerous enough, overreliance on external intervention and support may lengthen their recovery period or increase their dependency on their coping mechanisms, whether that’s alcohol and tobacco, or avoidance, or imbalance between the self and their portrayal for validation. This could all worsen the individual’s mental state.

In my opinion, unless the post is confirmed as a feigned claim of trauma in order to market a product, achieve commercial or capitalist gain, assume it is real. Assume it is a call for help, because it often is.

Being respectful costs nothing, but can mean everything. This can be as simple as reminding yourself and others to not be unkind. There is no obligation here and there never will be, especially not if the person in question has caused you grievous hurt. You make the call.

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