Are we being childish or protecting our mental health? Are we being considerate or censoring our freedom of speech? Those are the questions that surface whenever the issue of trigger warnings is raised.
Medically speaking, a trigger is any stimulus that can cause an individual to experience distress, anxiety, or panic. The term is often referred to as a trauma trigger and is associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as it can raise memories and feelings relating to a specific past traumatic experience.
Many literature bloggers, myself included, have begun to include a brief note in their reviews mentioning any potentially triggering content that readers of that book may be impacted by. Common triggers can include depictions of war, abuse, sexual assault, and self-harm. The warning acts as a small ‘heads up’ for the readers who need it, in order for them to be prepared for something that could otherwise cause emotional distress.
The inclusion of trigger warnings in book reviews enables us to protect people’s mental health. They don’t exist to suggest the book is bad, or that people shouldn’t engage with it. They simply exist so that someone can be emotionally prepared for what they read. Some universities have also started to implement the use of trigger warnings, informing students if a text they will be studying contains heavy themes so that everyone can better engage with the content.
So what is it that has people so against the use of trigger warnings? The primary argument is that readers who need them need to grow up and face the real world. But whenever this argument is presented, it seems that the assumption is that trigger warnings are a thing for teenage girls – a group our society constantly undermines as frivolous and over-emotional. When we consider individuals we perceive as more masculine, that perspective becomes problematized. You wouldn’t take a war veteran to watch a war film without warning, then tell them to grow up if they have an adverse reaction. So why would you make a rape survivor watch a film that features sexual assault without letting them know first? The same applies to literature.
Others are against trigger warnings because they claim it is censorship. But that is not the intention behind their use. Censorship would be to remove The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath from educational syllabuses due to the topic of depression. A trigger warning would simply be telling students that the novel contains depictions of suicidal intent and hospitalization. Knowing that prior to reading means that readers can save the book for a day when they are feeling emotionally strong enough to tackle it. Warning is not the same as forbidding. It’s just alerting people so they don’t go in blindly.
The news tells us when ‘the following footage may be upsetting to some viewers’ and we do not question it. But fiction can have profoundly intense psychological effects on people as well, and they have a right to prepare themselves. One could argue that a warning can spoil the book. But I believe the mental health and wellbeing of others should always take priority. After all, we read to learn new things and to enjoy ourselves, and to not provide warnings for certain kinds of content would be to exclude individuals with specific experiences from reading.