Trigger Warnings Censor and Harm Survivors, And It's Time to Stop Using Them

Trigger warnings only feed the stigma and shame that already weighs so heavily on people struggling with trauma.
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Publish date:
April 8, 2016
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mental illness, trigger warnings, censorship, trauma, trigger warning

More and more frequently, films and TV shows are including characters living with bipolar, PTSD, depression, and other mental-health challenges. The extant mental-health-related social media sites, online communities, and press coverage is becoming more mainstream. But many of the mental-health support groups and chat sites require trigger warnings before discussing suicide-related topics. Mandating prefaces or explanations before talking about suicide sends the message that mental illness is dangerous to talk about. It sends the message that the person experiencing them is dangerous and therefore shouldn’t attempt to connect with anyone. Trigger warnings only feed the stigma and shame that already weighs so heavily on people struggling with suicidal thoughts. It also directly contradicts the message that those who are suffering should “reach out” for help. How are people who need community and support supposed to receive the love they need if they have to censor themselves while asking for help?

Though the trigger warning is nothing new, the proliferation of trigger warnings on blogs, in college classes — to the detriment of students’ mental health — (and in general) in the last few years is staggering. The intent is to be more sensitive to those suffering from PTSD or other trauma. The goal is to protect them from experiencing disturbing and involuntary reactions, but, as someone diagnosed with PTSD, I resent being treated as fragile.

I struggle with flashbacks every time another mass shooting occurs in the United States because the news will inevitably mention the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. This tragedy is often mentioned as if it were simply another fact of life, not a life-rending event for the thousands of Littleton residents. I was in lockdown at a nearby middle school for seven hours. We were not told what was going on but could hear the sirens, helicopters and explosions. Before 1999, children were seen as a gift from God. Afterwards, any kid could be a terrorist. The message “if only their peers had reported suspicious behavior, this might have been prevented” was repeated over and over. The suspicion that adults suddenly viewed children with spilled over into how we viewed each other and ourselves. I have to fight against this distancing, relationship-harming misgiving every time I encounter a new person, try to make a new friend, or experience difficulty in an established friendship.

And yet, despite this — though I experience knee-buckling anxiety every time a car backfires and on every 4th of July, every time a potential new friendship presents itself and every time there’s conflict with an old one —I still feel like I can make my own decisions about what to expose myself to based on content, not on the evaluation of someone who does not know me or my brain or my trauma.

I can’t control when a car will backfire but that’s exactly the reason avoidance is a maladaptive behavior — the only way, for example, to provide a “trigger warning” in relationships is simply not to have them — even if trigger warnings are effective. Trigger warnings can produce the opposite of their intended effect, perhaps because of the unintended message that we can control our environment to such a level that every space can be a safe space. They send the message that we can avoid things that may be unsafe for us at all times and that we shouldn’t have to be exposed to anything that even feels unsafe.

However, this only makes us less prepared to handle unexpected, difficult things and it creates an atmosphere in which we can simply excuse ourselves whenever we feel unsafe, whatever our personal definition of that might be. I’ve had “I feel unsafe” used against me in situations where the person saying this had a responsibility to engage with me and respond on my behalf and by leaders as abdication of their commitments and duties. The truth is that, in the world we have, we can’t ever be totally safe and it makes us less so to think that we can.

Even though I understand the good intentions of trigger warnings, most of them, in my opinion, are too vague to be effective and making them more specific would simply restate whatever content you are trying to warn against. For a trigger warning to effectively warn someone about potentially harmful material, it would have be specific enough to no longer count as merely a warning. I’m not the only one who thinks trigger warnings don’t work, but even if it is simply a matter of personal preference, consider the effects trigger warnings have on the content they preface — they essentially flag the material as dangerous and something that should only be discussed in whispers. This kind of voluntary or requested censorship is the most insidious form of censorship that exists.

People struggling with suicidal thoughts already feel they have to be secretive, which is not only dangerous because suicidal thoughts are themselves traumatic, but also because secrecy, as Andrew Solomon writes in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, breeds depression. This hiding is a terrible burden and often causes isolation — one of the risk factors of suicide. We may not be able to create a safe space everywhere we go, but it is a matter of life or death that we create a safe space for those struggling with suicidal thoughts to discuss them freely, a place where no trigger warnings are required.