Let’s Talk About Trigger Warnings

The University of Chicago recently received a lot of criticism for a letter they sent out to incoming freshman about their belief against “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The University took this stance because they felt that these precautions do not foster an environment where people can freely communicate and express their opinions. Here at The Acorn, we feel that trigger warnings have benefits, but we also have reservations. Trigger warnings started out as being used to warn people about depictions or text that could trigger (hence the name) traumatic events. However, recently trigger warnings have not been taken as seriously by some members of media as society has come to exploit them. Whenever someone sees something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they immediately say that it is a “trigger warning.” This detracts from people whose triggers hold legitimate gravity and consequence.

On the surface, the use of trigger warnings seems to be a kind gesture in order to create a safe space for all individuals. However, this view is from the privileged position of a person who has not experienced mental illness or who fundamentally misunderstands how mental illness works. The way that trigger warnings have come to be used today is to reinforce the idea that what makes people mildly uncomfortable should be avoided at all costs, rather than fostering the ability to eventually overcome some sort of trauma. It has also turned into a mockery of what offends people and stalls their personal growth, which has nothing to do with panic attacks or emotionally violent reactions to a topic.

Additionally, on a practical level, nearly anything can be a trigger for someone suffering from a mental illness and for someone who has recently experienced a traumatic event, nearly anything can serve as a trigger. For example, someone with OCD might be “triggered” by the presence of odd numbers. Someone with social anxiety disorder (SAD) might be triggered by saying the wrong thing. Or someone who had a close relative pass away might be triggered by seeing their recently deceased relative’s favorite brand of soda. We cannot list trigger warnings for the number of objects, the presence of soda brands and the presence of people in  room. Neither can we include a trigger warning for every potentially sensitive topic in a text, because the possibilities are infinite. Anxiety is complex and every case is different. These blanket statements simplify this complexity and make a mockery of the pain that people with mental illness experience.

The issue of trigger warnings, anxiety and what makes people feel uncomfortable is a complex one. Ultimately, what people dealing with a mental illness want is empathy. Not mockery. Not pity. A safe space isn’t about having signs or designated spaces. It’s about having a place where people know that sometimes the best thing to say is: “I understand.”

[Graphic by  Joseph Gotto/Graphics Editor]

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