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A Case for Trigger Warnings, From a Suicide Loss Survivor's Perspective

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Trigger warnings, seems like you love them or you hate them. Intended to forewarn those who might be seriously and detrimentally affected by something about to be read or discussed, trigger warnings have come to represent the newest affront on our country’s Puritanical past and pull-up-your-bootstraps attitude from the warm and fuzzy, helicoptering, overprotecting parents on the left.

It seems like no one likes trigger warnings, but college campuses are becoming increasingly annoyed by them. Interestingly, mental health issues on college campuses are also on the rise.

Is that because we’re getting soft?  Is it because these helicopter parents haven’t adequately prepared their kids for independence and self-sufficiency?

Or maybe people just talk about and express their psychological problems, whereas 20 years ago they would’ve kept silent?  Maybe the world is becoming more stressful?

We could debate the reasons for mental health issues in young adults until the cows come home, but would that refute the fact that more of these college kids are having them? Telling a 19-year-old that the reason they feel anxiety is because mommy didn’t prepare him for life doesn’t change the fact that he feels anxious, it just makes him feel ashamed.

And when we make others feel ashamed of their illnesses, the results are disastrous.  People don’t seek treatment. People die.

So while you may have no need of trigger warnings, perhaps a portrait of why they are sometimes necessary will help negate the argument that they shouldn’t exist?

Nineteen years ago, I lost my twin brother to suicide. It was traumatic. It was unforeseen. It was horrible. I wouldn’t wish the turmoil and grief and guilt we all experienced after his death on anyone, let alone an enemy. I do everything I can to help others in the same place he was.

But 18 years ago, my grief was still very raw and fresh and painful. I have little need of trigger warnings now, but almost 20 years ago, I would’ve loved them. Unfortunately, they didn’t exist in pop culture. If I was lucky, someone would tell me not to read or see something because it was about suicide, sensing intuitively it might upset me. There was a kindness and empathy in that warning I never hear in the voices of the people who complain about such warnings today.

Two years after my brother died, I was somewhat healed. I was living in a new city and trying to move on. I was doing a good job. My boyfriend took me to see a very popular movie at the time, “Fight Club.”

Most of the movie is hazy to me now, but I do remember the ending. Jack takes a gun and he shoots himself in the face. This is not how my brother died, but it was close enough in time that this bothered me.

Bothered me how? I can hear you wondering.

I tumbled from my seat as he pulled the trigger, dry-heaving and falling over myself the whole way, desperate to unsee. I ran through the lobby, holding back sobs, and into the dark parking lot. Outside, I began screaming through my sobs, “How could they do this?  How could anyone do this?  Why would anyone want to see?” as my boyfriend apologized profusely. His guilt over being a party to my pain was tremendous.

Because you see, if he’d known, he would’ve warned me. He would’ve told me to close my eyes or given me the option to avoid the movie altogether. And I could have decided for myself if I was ready to see a death by suicide, if the pain it would cause was worth it.

Are we babying kids too much these days? Absolutely. I think it’s absurd I can’t let my 8-year-old walk to the bus alone without raising eyebrows. But when it comes to mental health, I think it’s high time we shut our mouths when it comes to judging someone else’s problems. If you haven’t been there, you could hardly understand. And in the absence of knowledge, don’t defend your ignorance. Gracefully acknowledge it, and let others decide for themselves what is and what isn’t OK for them to deal with today.

Tomorrow, if your time comes to live through a trauma, we will extend the same courtesy.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: September 23, 2016
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