Warning: May Contain Traces of Nuts – On Trigger Warnings and Mental Health

trigger warnings

Every other week there seems to be a story in the news about how students these days don’t respect the fundamental human right of free speech. Whether it’s by no-platforming transphobic celebrities like Germaine Greer, or by requesting that departments put trigger warnings on articles about rape, the world is convinced that university students no longer know how to live in the real world.

What the world doesn’t realise, however, is that trigger warnings do not remotely impact on freedom of speech. In other words, shock horror gasp, the media is wrong again.

Trigger warnings – also known the practice or warning people that the content or media they’re about to consume contains some potentially upsetting material – are, for some reason, a controversial thing. People really hate trigger warnings. Like really hate them. Even Stephen Fry hates them.

But trigger warnings aren’t harming freedom of speech. Quite the opposite in fact. They’re ensuring that people can create content with sensitive themes without upsetting anyone. Putting a trigger warning on something simply allows the consumer to make an informed decision. Instead of reading an article about rape, getting upset about it, and shouting at the author (not a likely outcome, I’ll be honest), the potential reader can instead see ‘TW: Rape’ and decide the avoid the content all together. They can continue with their day happily, and the creator is none the wiser. Everyone is happy.

[bctt tweet=”Trigger warnings aren’t violating your freedom of speech – so stop pretending they are” username=”oawoodward”]

What’s more, trigger warnings are used literally every day without objection. The BBC even uses them before particularly distressing episodes of Eastenders – and no one bats an eyelid then.

No one objects to ‘WARNING: May Contain Traces of Nuts’ appearing on the back of a chocolate bar because, hey, guess what, nut allergies are real and dangerous things. But preface a link you’ve shared on Facebook with ‘Trigger Warning: Contains Mentions of Eating Disorders and Calorie Counting’, and the anti-PC brigade will hunt you down sharpish.

Which is ridiculous, because the two scenarios are identical. Warning someone with a nut allergy not to consume a chocolate bar because it could cause them severe harm is literally no different to warning someone with an eating disorder not to consume an article because it could trigger a relapse or cause them severe distress. Both nut allergies and eating disorders are real conditions, and both nut allergies and eating disorders can cause severe harm.

It seems that it comes down to what it often comes down to: the stigma surrounding mental health. Feel free to try and protect someone’s physical wellbeing, but heaven forbid someone tries to protect another’s mental health.

[bctt tweet=”‘Feel free to protect someone’s physical health – but God forbid you try to protect their mental health'” username=”oawoodward”]

People don’t like trigger warnings because they don’t like recognising that mental health issues are just as real, just as damaging, and just as dangerous as physical conditions. People shout ‘grow up’ at those who use trigger warnings because they fail to recognise that part of living in the real world when you suffer from mental health issues is developing strategies and systems to make life easier – and for some that includes using trigger warnings.

As for the freedom of speech debate, all I can say is this. Maybe learn what freedom of speech actually entails before you turn purple with anger.

[bctt tweet=”People don’t like trigger warnings because they don’t like admitting that mental illness is real” username=”oawoodward”]

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