What’s All the Hullabaloo?: A Perspective on Trigger Warnings

We at Ooligan press are incredibly excited about the recent release of The Gifts We Keep by Katie Grindeland. This is the book my project team has worked to publish. It’s set in the Lake Oswego, Oregon, area and follows various members of a family struggling to deal with their grief over past tragedy. The book struggles with topics of mental health, sexuality, family dynamics, and suicide. As our team has worked to bring this beautifully and deliberately conceived piece of fiction into the world, we have wondered what readers will take away from the novel; what they’ll enjoy; and how they’ll feel about what happens. Every person bringing a story to life wonders how the audience will react, but do they all think of the possibility of a bad reaction to their work? I don’t mean a bad reaction like, “Gross, I hated it.” I mean a reaction like, “This brought back traumatic memories or thoughts in a way that affected my mental and emotional health.” Do we, the storytellers, have a responsibility to warn our audience about subject matter that could cause that kind of distress?
That’s right. I’m talking about trigger warnings.
What is a trigger warning? What does it do? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a trigger warning is “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).”
Trigger warnings have been surrounded by a lot of controversy as they’ve been adopted by various institutions and media. Much of this controversy has approached trigger warnings as an example of political correctness run rampant, such as the widely read Atlantic cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind” or the Vox story “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” These responses see trigger warnings as a tool for people to use to avoid ideas and values that they don’t agree with and demonize them as a form of censorship.
According to the article “A Short History of Trigger Warnings” by Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, the concept of a trigger warning has evolved from its original intention, which was to protect vulnerable people who have experienced trauma, such as violence or sexual abuse, from material that might trigger intrusive thoughts and flashbacks that they quite literally have no control over. He claims the concept of a trigger warning has expanded to anything that might cause offense, disgust, or feelings of discomfort, such as “vomit, spiders and insects, slimy things, food, eye contact, pregnancy.” Whether material like that requires a trigger warning is a debate for someone else another time. However, it’s important to remember what and who trigger warnings existed for in the first place—people who have experienced trauma or mental illness for whom being unexpectedly confronted with certain materials may put them in danger of a harmful psychological response that they are not in control of. The issue is one of accessibility. To someone who has not experienced trauma or mental illness, a quick note before a movie or in the front matter of a book stating that viewers should be aware of sensitive material may be an annoyance, but to someone who has, that warning could, figuratively or literally, be a lifesaver. It allows someone who might be affected by the material to either prepare themselves or remove themselves from the situation. Is the minor inconvenience to one group more important than the well-being of the other?
I hope that readers of The Gifts We Keep by Katie Grindeland appreciate the elegance of the writing, the nuance of the characters, and the effective use of atmosphere. I also hope that our readers have the opportunity to enjoy this and other works we produce in a safe and informed way. And I, personally, don’t mind a little inconvenience if I can help make that happen.

Science Fiction is Fighting the Fight

With the end of the summer came Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 2–9) hosted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness. I knew that May was Mental Health Awareness Month, but I was pleased to hear another week was nationally devoted to breaking the stigma against mental illnesses. One in four people are affected by mental health disorders, and only two-thirds of that statistic ever seeks professional help. As the World Health Report states,”Where there is neglect, there is little or no understanding. Where there is no understanding, there is neglect.”
Acknowledging the possibility that something just isn’t feeling right is difficult enough for an individual who is already struggling with the effects of depression, or any mental illness altering one’s perception of themselves in relation to the world around them. And the issue of lamenting this invisible lethargy of sadness to a professional, a stranger, is by no means an easy feat. But it’s the cultural and social aspects of recognizing and talking about mental health issues that complicate the decision to seek treatment. That’s why I was incredibly impressed when I learned that a group of science fiction authors were hosting a social media campaign called
#HoldOnToTheLight. Created by Gail Z. Martin, the campaign encompasses “blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention, and other mental health–related issues.” The campaign serves as a welcoming, inclusive space where authors and readers alike can share stories of mental illness without shame or embarrassment.
As a reader who leans more toward the land of general literary fiction, I knew little about the science fiction community, and I honestly didn’t care to know. But since learning about this campaign, I’ve realized this genre has been talking about mental health–related issues and anxieties since its conception. The New York Times writes, “Science fiction does not detail the realities of specific problems so that we might avoid them, but rather represent our most pressing cultural fears.” For example, in his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell encompasses issues related to the nature of his home nation in the turmoil of WWII and how democracy was being betrayed by totalitarianism (excuse my incredibly poor summary) by exploring an alternate reality for his characters. J. P. Telotte explains that “while science fiction … novels often, and quite naturally, raise awareness of—or stimulate discussion about—scientific and technological issues including climate change, they seldom function as primers for the solutions we need for these very knotty problems. More often, they make us feel better about our ability to survive them.”
While #HoldOnToTheLight wasn’t created to discuss mental illness in metaphors or analogies, it gives science fiction authors a place to honestly collect and disperse their personal accounts relating to depression, anxiety, or any ailment that has affected them mentally. Whether science fiction is portraying a realistic rendition of mental illness or exploring the issues through a greater metaphorical lens, I’m content in knowing that this community of writers is working to create a safe space for those suffering.
As Lord Byron once said of writers (and humans in general), “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”