When you live with mental illness, you see the words “trigger warning” everywhere. Every article on mental health is preceded by big bold letters: trigger warning. Don’t read this, if you have X,Y or Z. It leaves me scratching my head, a little. I mean, I’m reading this article because I have X,Y or Z. If I’m not supposed to read it, then who is?
Up until recently, I was a member of a Facebook group for sufferers of Depression. The group was marketed as a safe setting, for sufferers to share their experiences and support each other. I found the group to be helpful (although I didn’t post a lot on it, as I have this blog to vent on), until the night before I decided to leave it.
I was idly scrolling through my news feed one night, and a post on the group caught my attention. A fellow member had shared with the rest of the group, that they had taken an overdose of pills. My heart lurched forwards. This person must be in a very dark place, to even consider harming themselves. My knee-jerk reaction was to reply to the post, and urge the member to seek immediate medical attention. I clicked on it, and saw that someone had already replied. It was one of the admins of the group. Oh, thank God. An admin is helping this person I thought. Then I read the admin’s reply. What I read angered me to the point, that I had a 10 minute rant to poor Mr C, who was trying to watch the football on TV.
To paraphrase the admin’s comment, it basically said “sorry to hear you’re feeling low. Could you please edit your post and add a trigger warning to it?” What. The. Actual. Fuck?! This person was in a life threatening situation, and all the admin cared about was that they didn’t write “trigger warning” on their post?! Anyone who has any knowledge of drug overdoses of any kind, knows that every minute is crucial to the chances of the sufferer’s survival and long term recovery. That so-called leader of the group, should’ve been more concerned with the stricken member receiving immediate medical care; and not whether or not the rest of the group would find the post offensive, or triggering. Furthermore, every minute wasted on editing their post, meant that they were another minute closer to death. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Before I could chime in and urge the original poster to seek immediate help, another member echoed my thoughts.
The post did actually trigger me, but not in the way you might think. The post and the the admin’s comment triggered my curiosity and analytical mind. I decided to do some research into the use of trigger warnings. I scoured the internet for articles and social media posts on mental health. Everything related to mental illness was littered with trigger warnings. Then I searched for articles and social media posts on chronic (physical) illnesses. Not a single trigger warning in sight. Cancer survivor stories, which went into graphic detail about the gruelling treatment they received and the emotional and psychological effects of the illness; didn’t carry any trigger warnings. And why should they? Why shouldn’t their voices be heard, without some megalomaniac with a superiority complex telling them to be quiet, or the other survivors and sufferers might hear? So why should sufferers of mental illness be treated in this way?
Why should we be forced to gloss over the horrific, frightening truth about our illnesses? Why should we sit down and shut up? Why should we have to be careful what we say, in case some delicate little lamb is offended by it? When did society decide that people with mental illnesses were incapable of hearing other peoples’ stories? When did we start allowing ourselves to be patronised and thought policed?
I understand that there are instances, where certain words or stories can provoke emotional flashbacks. And in the extreme cases, trigger warnings do serve a purpose. But in my experience,the emotional flashbacks I’ve encountered weren’t triggered by an article on the internet. Regular, everyday things have triggered me. There are certain songs I can’t listen to, and certain smells and perfumes provoke a panic response in me.
Maybe trigger warnings were meant to protect the extremely vulnerable, and then (like most things) became something for the permanently offended to abuse. I find that trigger warnings are being used on nearly all mental health related content now. I read an article recently, which was written by someone who’d found a way to overcome panic attacks. Immediately below the title, were the words “trigger warning.” What, so you can’t read it, if you want to get better?! It’s all getting a bit out of hand, isn’t it? Where are the trigger warnings on articles about cleaning your skirting boards? Now that particular activity does trigger me.
During mental health awareness days and months, we’re bombarded with messages of “speak up, silence kills” and “don’t be ashamed, talk about it.” But then when we do, we get slapped across the face with “you didn’t say the magic words! You’re supposed to say trigger warning!” How the hell are we supposed to get rid of stigma? How are we supposed to heal and recover, if we can’t be open about our experiences? For me, the overuse of trigger warnings is a form of abuse. The person who’s writing about their experiences is being abused and controlled, and the people reading it are being controlled. We’re being prevented from pulling on our big girl panties and facing the cold, hard reality of mental illness. We’re being told that it’s not OK to speak or write about it, and the people who dare to, are naughty rebels; who are trying to poison us.
Why can’t we ditch the warning labels and let people make their own minds up, about what offends and triggers them?
I’d love to hear your opinions and viewpoints on this subject. When I extend this invitation, I don’t mean only if you write “trigger warning” on your comments.
Photo credit by Nicholas Gercken, courtesy of Unsplash