Content and trigger warnings for protecting mental health

TW: This post discusses mental illness, trauma, suicide, and mentions drug abuse and addiction. It focuses on the impacts of different kinds of trigger warnings and what might need to be covered by a warning. Skip it (especially the subheading "An example", which deals with suicide) if you're not in the best frame of mind for these topics, or contact me to ask about specific triggers before you read.


As an educator, I've often had people ask me why I put so much energy into sharing trigger warnings and/or content warnings in my classes and content. I know some people roll their eyes and assume trigger warnings are just something we use so that overly sensitive people don't get 'upset'.


But trigger warnings are not about preventing anyone from getting 'upset' or ‘pandering to snowflakes’. They're a strategy to help survivors of trauma and mental illness navigate the world safely, without encountering images, themes, or experiences that trigger symptoms (symptoms that can and often are dangerous for them, as well as unpleasant). Trigger warnings are a basic requirement for any teacher, writer, or creator with a commitment to inclusion, because we live in a world where trauma is rife. If we don’t use trigger or content warnings, and we address topics that can be triggers, we make our content, classrooms, and other spaces unsafe for survivors of trauma.


Note: we should also use trigger warnings for physical conditions that require them, like epilepsy, migraines, or allergies, but I’m mostly focusing on trigger warnings for trauma and mental illness survivors here.


Good trigger warnings are clear, concise, specific, and provide strategies for survivors to prevent unnecessary or dangerous exposure. (See my trigger warning for this post at the top, and perhaps go back and think about what it did and didn’t say once you get to the end of the post.)


The media often uses “the following content may distress some viewers” as a trigger warning, but I don’t believe this is helpful. While I understand the need to make sure we don’t trigger viewers with the trigger warning itself, we need to provide enough detail so that viewers know what the trigger is.


An example

For instance, a person who has experienced suicidal thoughts might find that content discussing methods of suicide is harmful to their mental health, but content related to suicide prevention and recovery from mental illness is extremely helpful. So generic trigger warnings – even if they identify suicide as a theme – can go wrong for this person in two ways:

  1. If they heed the warning and avoid the content, they may miss out on a beneficial story for them, if it was a positive story about recovery from serious mental illness (and denying any mentally ill person access to something hopeful is, in my view, a terrible thing).

  2. If they don’t heed the warning (after all, most mainstream content wouldn’t discuss methods of suicide), they risk triggering symptoms of mental illness and they may be in danger as a result.

A good trigger warning in this instance would state something like: “The following story addresses suicide prevention and includes the recovery experiences of suicide survivors.”

Looking at this warning, I can see that the creator of the content has thought about what is likely to be triggering and has stated what’s included in the story. There is unlikely to be content discussing suicide methods.


Of course, with live content (including in the classroom), we can’t control what’s going to be said or done in front of audiences. In this case (say it’s a panel discussion on suicide prevention), we need to provide a trigger warning that states this from the outset, ideally before anyone gets to the event/class/etc. Something like: “This event addresses suicide prevention and is expected to include wide ranging discussion of mental illness and suicide themes.” If it’s for a classroom setting, I generally email ahead and remind students that I can’t control what others say in the room and tell them to contact me if they need support.


In the classroom

That’s the other facet of trigger warnings in education – they need to be employed with other strategies for protecting students in the classroom (including the virtual classroom). I'll address this in more detail in a future post.


There are lots of lists for things that need trigger warnings available on the web – I like the Uni of Michigan’s resource here, but note that it does not include ‘drug use’ as a potential trigger, and that’s a really important one for addicts or people with drug-related trauma. No list is ever going to be exhaustive, so it’s really important that we listen to students, readers, and audience members when they tell us they need trigger warnings for a specific theme. I generally invite students to contact me if they need me to provide a specific trigger warning. Just remember to make sure you don’t share personal information about students’ triggers with the whole class, and work with the student to figure out strategies for protecting them (and for them to protect themselves) in the classroom.

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