Mental health awareness and acceptance has come a long way even in the last 10 years. We have social media platforms to speak honestly about these issues, a national day to ask our friends and family ‘RUOK?’, and physical and online resources to help those experiencing mental illness. It is well understood that mental illness affects everybody differently, and because of this health professionals recognise multiple tools to alleviate their symptoms in everyday life.
‘13 Reasons Why’, a new television series on Netflix, has caused controversy around the depiction of mental health disorders and the glamorising of suicide. Media outlets reported that the effects of the show were so great that it prompted a large increase of phone calls to help lines around Australia . The discussions have mentioned the appropriate and inappropriate usage of so-called ‘trigger warnings’, with many commentators divided on the need for content to contain such warnings.
But hold on a second: what is a Trigger Warning?
A trigger warning is a message at the beginning of a video, article, or an image that warns the viewer that the content may be ‘triggering’ for certain individuals. A trigger is a stimulus that sets off a flashback reminding that person of their original trauma. Individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are commonly depicted in TV and film reacting to triggering stimuli, such as war veterans associating the sound of a car backfiring with artillery fire in the field. The video below is from the film ‘American Sniper’, where the main character has clearly been affected by his experiences serving as a sniper in Iraq.
Trigger warnings can come in many different forms for different forms of media. Some bloggers provide a trigger warning before their article link. For others, it is a short message or audio before a video. It took a lot of searching to find genuine examples online of trigger warnings as examples, as it seems they have become a laughing matter on social media.
An excellent example of a trigger warning in Australian media content was included on the You Can’t Ask That episode asking candid questions to suicide attempt survivors. This episode was only available on ABC iView and contained information for Australian mental health hotlines, as well as the introduction to the sensitive content.
Why is there controversy and division regarding Trigger Warnings?
As with many social issues like this, there are supporters and detractors. Academics and content creators have expressed their opinions against trigger warnings. Some academics and professionals from higher learning institutions have argued that trigger warnings hinder academic discussion and free speech, allowing students to excuse themselves from ‘uncomfortable’ content matter.
The disdain for trigger warnings in some institutions has extended from the mouths of professors, into official university policies. Commencing students at the University of Chicago were surprised by the contents of their welcome letter in 2016. Students were welcomed to the university and the letter expressed the institution’s commitment to freedom of speech. The third paragraph in the letter states that they do not condone trigger warnings, ‘safe spaces’, or excusing controversial speakers.
Other commentators believe the use of trigger warnings is a form of political correctness that is a result of people being too sensitive. They also express that, if required to use trigger warnings, where is the line drawn in terms of subject matter.
So, do Trigger Warnings have a place in our modern media?
In my personal opinion, YES!, but I want to show my reasoning behind this and give a suggestion of how it could be better integrated and standardised in teaching and published media.
The academic commentary on this issue revolves around the ethical considerations of those in teaching positions. This includes their component of responsible pedagogical practice, and outlining if and when they should be required to provide these warnings. There is a general consensus that the issue of trigger warnings does present a difficult paradox, between being sensitive to the intended audience and challenging those same audiences with difficult subject matter.
Wyatt expresses that, as a default position, academics should not be required to use trigger warnings. Yet in her article she provides ethical considerations that may inform the appropriate usage of a trigger warning. Stringer has expressed her approval of these warnings in university settings, embracing trigger warnings when teaching ‘Critical Victimology’ at her institution. In the realms of the classroom, no single approach is perfect but any steps taken to be more accommodating to vulnerable students is a step in the right direction.
In other forms of media, I would propose including trigger warnings into the Australian Classification system. Within the Guidelines for the Classification of Films 2012, contained withinthe Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, it outlines the general principles under which classifications are made:
‘(a) adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want;
(b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
(c) everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;
(d) the need to take account of community concerns about:
(i) depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and
(ii) the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.’
Currently the Six Classifiable Elements for determining ratings are Themes, Violence, Sex, Language, Drug use, and Nudity. I believe much of the content that has previously been provided with a trigger warning falls within these general principles, and could be integrated into the ratings system.
I believe in the next 10 years there will be an increased uptake in the use of trigger warnings in whatever form they appear. As content creators and sharers, I believe we should always be conscious of what we expose others to, and do our best to minimise harm in whatever way we can.