Trigger Warnings: Please Read Carefully

There has been a lot of consternation in the media lately about how “millennials on campus” are becoming so scared of ideas that push the boundaries, that they have started calling for trigger warnings before lectures to avoid exposure to ideas that are different to their own. Free speech advocates argue that these warnings limit their ability to have valuable discussions about pertinent and quite often divisive topics, arguing that if you can’t have these freely conversations in University, where can you have them? These sentiments are often vocally supported by those used to pushing the boundaries of debate and philosophy, and this vocal opposition has trickled down into the depths of the ANU Facebook group infamously known as ANU Stalkerspace. Very little defense or explanation of trigger warnings has been proffered in any of the multiple discussions relating to the topic that have appeared on that group – to the extent that one explanation was taken from an article lampooning the concept – so I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you what you might not know about trigger warnings.

I’ll start this off with a definition of a trigger warning, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. A trigger warning is “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, a video etc. alerting the consumer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.” It allows consumers to decide whether or not to continue reading or viewing content, not because the ideas involved in the content are too “scary” and they want to live in a world where everyone thinks the same, but because such content may trigger a highly emotional response, to the extent of potentially triggering flashbacks to trauma. Common topics that require trigger warnings may be; the discussion of/recounting episodes of suicide, sexual assault, physical assault, acts of racism or acts of ableism. This list can be expanded depending on context, to include depictions of war, torture, graphic medical procedures and many, many more.

A lot of us can read accounts of these situations and maintain a level of detachment. For a lot of people, it doesn’t require additional mental exertion to read about the above depictions, however, some people who have experienced these forms of abuse and mistreatment can require time to mentally prepare themselves before they are exposed to potential flashback fodder. But how prevalent are these people in our community? For some context, the ABS tells us that more than 1 in 6 women over the age of 18 have experienced sexual assault, and for men we’re looking at closer to 1 in 20 (although both statistics ignore the fact that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes). If you consider the MIEACT proven fact that PTSD experts claim the likelihood that 50% of all people sexually assaulted will go on to develop a form of PTSD, then that is a lot of people at our university who could potentially be affected by traumatic content. And of course, this just relates to trauma relating to sexual assault, not any of the other forms mentioned.

When we discuss the use of trigger warnings it is imperative that we remember that topics that may trigger responses are not abstract intellectual concepts to those triggered, but rather lived, traumatic experiences, and it is thus essential not to respond with mockery. Quite often what you are mocking is a presentation of mental illness, and this can have long lasting effects on an individual’s willingness to come forward, admit they need help, and seek treatment. When you comment on a controversial topic with “triggered” because you think it’s funny, you’re actually mocking an extremely painful reaction, to an extremely painful event.

Like a lot of people I thought trigger warnings would never apply to me, and while I would still include them when posting traumatic content to pages of political discussion, I was doing so out of courtesy rather than understanding. How could words hurt you? How could they provoke a physical reaction? This was my attitude until I was indecently assaulted in 2014. It was not the first time I had faced a form of sexual assault, and it certainly wasn’t the worst or the most traumatic, but it forced me to acknowledge all the feelings I had avoided and buried from previous assaults. When I called the police and instigated charges against my attacker, I had to deal with the fact that I had never before taken action, even when my safety was at risk. All of a sudden I had to deal emotionally with not only my most recent, but all of my previous assaults.

Resultantly, for several months after the event I suffered from something in between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder. I didn’t sleep, I was suddenly extremely anxious about everything, I no longer found comfort in human contact, I occasionally had flashbacks and I couldn’t walk by myself at night. I don’t like admitting this, especially to myself, and I definitely maintained a convincing façade of being alright… at least until I read an extremely ignorant article on the “appropriate response to sexual assault.” An article that previously would have caused me irritation, even indignation, had me shaking and in shock. I couldn’t hold my hands still to type out a response. The effect was profound. I felt like all my experiences of pain and assault were being doubted, and then I relived it all.

I didn’t ever want to need trigger warnings, and I definitely ignored them to my detriment. I didn’t even honestly admit to myself how badly I had suffered after this incident until I was participating in a session on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I realized that I fitted four of the four diagnostic criteria. I didn’t want to be someone who needed to restrict what they read occasionally in order to look after themselves, until I realized it was imperative to conserve mental energy.

Even while I write this, I keep thinking “great, now I’ll be one of those people everyone thinks can’t handle tough situations”, “the next trigger orientated jokes will be on me”, and “I wonder how long it will be till someone openly doubts the severity of my story, or calls me weak.” This is exactly the kind of internal monologue you create in someone when you make jokes about trigger warnings. When we laugh at someone’s mental illness, we are creating a culture that is delegitimizing their experiences, and we can’t then be surprised when they would rather not get treatment as a result.

What does it cost us, as a society, to put a trigger warning, totalling a few words, before an article that’s written, or above a link to a video? It isn’t actually a violation of free speech, as it isn’t actually stopping anyone from viewing it. It is just giving people the opportunity to assess their needs and evaluate whether watching or reading this particular piece of communication is worth the mental energy required to keep their shit together. It’s not even a new concept! We have content warnings on every movie – that’s what the rating system involves. We are more than happy to put NSFW on a video we post on Facebook, and before any session on mental health, sexual assault, domestic violence or PTSD the presenter always lets us know we can leave the room at any time if we’re uncomfortable – and no one bats an eyelid.

I’m at a stage now where I only need trigger warnings when I’m extremely tired, or have had an extremely taxing day. I get home, go online, see posts with trigger warnings (which I usually read anyway) and instead of reading them I scroll down my newsfeed until a baby animal appears. My use of trigger warnings hasn’t prevented me from engaging in intellectually taxing and topically contentious conversations, in fact, when I have the spoons, I really enjoy them. It just helps me conserve my energy better so that when I really want to do so, I can.

So, to be clear, trigger warnings aren’t a symptom of close-minded thinking by millennials at university, they are there to support the mental health and wellbeing of those who need them. Should we really be derisive of that?