Stop Slapping A Trigger Warning Label On My Life

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

Sexuality. Wellness. Eating disorders. Mental health. I’ve written many sensitive articles over the last eight years, which have helped me heal from (and deal with) the complexities of life. But one of the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart involves suicide. As a two-time survivor, it is important for me to spread the message of hope. I want to let others know there is help, and life on the other side. But every time I mention the “S word,” my words get banished. Blocked. My story begins only after a trigger warning — after something like “this piece contains descriptions of suicide” or “the following includes a discussion about suicide. Discretion is advised” — and I’m angry and tired of fighting this dogged fight. Because the only way to raise awareness and stop the stigma surrounding suicide is to speak about the subject, openly and freely.

In order for people to care, there needs to be a name and story.

Trigger warnings are blurbs that appear at the top of articles and/or before video clips that are “designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response… to certain subjects from encountering them unaware,” an article on Geek Feminist Wiki explains. “Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other safe spaces [and] are designed to prevent unaware encounter[s] of certain materials or subjects for the benefit of people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response.” However, they’ve become so prevalent they are trite and tired. Trigger warnings render the subject matter taboo. They also prevent useful dialogue and discussion, which is a key aspect of suicide prevention.

Speaking about suicide is the only way we can stop suicide.

It is the only way we can reach those who are hurting, and truly offer help.

Of course, you may be asking why I bother? Why do I care? I mean, this doesn’t have to be my fight. And you’re right. It doesn’t. Suicide affects millions each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide in 2019. 3.5 million planned a suicide, and 1.4 million made an attempt, with 47,500 dying by suicide each year. But when I woke up on “the other side” — when my eyes fluttered open and my lungs took in a full, deep breath of air — I knew I needed to talk about suicide. I needed to share my story, and I needed to let others know there is help and hope.

Plus, trigger warnings are placed on many things, not just suicide prevention articles. And these warnings gatekeep content. They make certain subjects forbidden. Certain matters are banished, banned, and considered taboo, and this can have a detrimental effect on those who have survived similar events.

According to a 2019 study published by Clinical Psychological Science, trigger warnings may do more harm than good. They don’t protect individuals from hurt, per say, but they can cause serious pain for those who have lived through similar trauma. What’s more, according to a 2016 New York Times article by Richard J. McNally, a professor and the director of clinical training in psychology at Harvard University, trigger warnings are “countertherapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD.”

Make no mistake: I don’t think all trigger warnings are wrong or bad. If I share the details of my attempt, for example, it should come with a warning. Strong, visceral depictions of suicide can do more harm than good. Articles with surprising scenes should also include warnings, i.e. if I’m writing about my child’s birthday but suddenly talk about sexual abuse, you may want (and rightfully deserve) a heads up. Plus, as writer Katie Bingham-Smith writes, there are benefits to trigger warnings. “Being given a ‘trigger warning’ is a tool to prepare people to protect themselves if they need to. And believe me, some people need to.”

But I’m tired of others putting a lid on the matter, and deciding suicide doesn’t matter. I’m tired of the silence and ignorance. Of blind eyes being turned to touchy subjects, and I’m tired of being told my story is too graphic. That I am too obscene to exist in this space and place. And yes, that’s one of the (inadvertent) messages trigger warnings send. They tell survivors their tragedy is too much. They should buck up and shut up and be mum on the matter.

So while I think there is still room for the trigger warning, I think it is time we rethink its usage. Because in order to heal (collectively) and deal with life, we need to talk about it.

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