I used to feel like trigger warnings should be mandatory. Then I realized that mandating them actually does more harm than good. Mental illness and mental health, in general, are topics that are slowly but surely becoming less and less taboo. We, as a society, are finally talking about mental illness and we’re even illustrating the reality of those illnesses in books, television, and movies. Most recently, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has caused a divide between those who feel it was too graphic and too triggering for television and those who feel it was both informative and realistic. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Panic Disorder, I fall into the latter category.
Personally, I thought the show was a great portrayal of what the high school experience can be like when it’s not all fun and Friday night football games. I believe the portrayal of subtle, and not-so-subtle, bullying was pretty accurate, as was the slut-shaming, the controversial rape scene, the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide, and the immense grief that plagued numerous people afterward. Although those scenes can be unpleasant to watch, and for some, even triggering, they’re realistic. They don’t glorify Hannah’s actions and nobody ends up getting their “happily ever after” – not really, anyway. So, in short, this is not a show that, in my opinion, “glorifies” suicide.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the show, what I do have a problem with are the people who lay blame on the creators for making it “too triggering” instead of taking personal responsibility for their own mental illnesses.
So let’s get this straight: trigger warnings are a favor to the audience, not a requirement.
It is not the content creators’ responsibility to create a show that won’t trigger anyone anywhere and it’s not their responsibility to police the reactions that come as a result either. As someone who deals with various mental illness, I’m aware that, while others may go out of their way to accommodate me, it’s not their responsibility to do so. Ultimately my mental illnesses and the different ways they affect me, are my own burdens to deal with. Similarly, it’s not the job of the show creators to accommodate those who may feel triggered by its content and it’s definitely not their job to avoid creating something true to life so that not a single member of the audience feels distressed. In fact, accommodating someone who’s dealing with an anxiety disorder, especially when that person is a family member, actually does them much more harm than good in the long run and that’s been proven.
Now, I understand that certain scenes can be triggering – I, too, am a survivor of both suicide and sexual assault – but here’s where good, old-fashioned personal responsibility comes in. The show is rated TV-MA for mature audiences and, at the beginning of each episode, the content is listed along with the rating. In fact, the creators even go above and beyond to specifically state “rape” and “suicide” in the episodes containing each, respectively. Having said that, it’s also important to remember that, “according to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided” – which is absolutely true. As I mentioned before, I have OCD, which is categorized as an anxiety disorder, and you know what the only real form treatment is? Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy which is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that consists of actively trying to trigger myself and then learning to simply sit with the anxiety that comes as a result. Though it’s not an easy task, by any means, – in fact, it’s extremely difficult to do – it’s the best way to treat my anxiety because avoiding my triggers will only make my anxiety worse. And the same rings true for those struggling with PTSD.
So while I can sometimes appreciate trigger warnings when granted as a favor to the audience, what I don’t understand is the reactions of some people who blatantly ignored those trigger warnings and got triggered anyway. A portion of those people have since even called for the show’s cancellation and claim it never should’ve been aired in the first place because of its unpleasant content. What I simply can’t sympathize with is why the blame is being placed on the show and its creators, instead of the individual. If you’re a rape survivor, it’s likely that a graphic depiction of rape could trigger you. Likewise, if you’re someone who’s currently suicidal, or recently has been, the portrayal of a messy suicide might not be best for your overall mental health. That said, there are tons of people who understand their triggers are their own responsibility to deal with and do not expect society, of the creators of a television show, to tiptoe around issues that are ultimately not theirs.
As trigger warnings become seen as “requirements,” as opposed to favors granted to the audience, some individuals who are easily triggered by certain content are calling out for restrictions on such content – and that’s not right. As I said before, it’s up to them as individuals to decide what they should, or should not, watch if they’re easily triggered by graphic content and/or uncomfortable topics. When trigger warnings are viewed as something that should be mandatory, mentally ill people, including myself, are able to shift the personal responsibility of dealing with their triggers to the content creators and that’s not the direction we should be heading in. Instead of preparing mentally ill individuals to be afraid, which is essentially what a trigger warning accomplishes, perhaps we should be discussing how they can overcome the visceral reaction a graphic scene could lead to as opposed to simply encouraging them to avoid the scene all together.
In the words of my good friend, Justin, “Let the storytellers create and take care of yourself.”