Trigger warnings for books have been, and continue to be, a very controversial topic. While many people (myself included) feel that trigger warnings are an essential part of making reading accessible to people with mental illnesses and/or who have survived trauma, others fear that trigger warnings might spoil parts of the book. Others simply don’t understand what trigger warnings are for and some even think that if people can’t handle certain topics, they just shouldn’t read at all (yes, there really are people who feel that way). As I already mentioned, I strongly support the use of trigger warnings and today I want to explain why.
First of all, let’s explain what exactly a trigger warning is.
If you can’t see the picture, it states that 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).” Basically, it’s just a heads up that what you’re about to read (or watch) talks about some topics that might be hard to handle.
You’ve probably already come across trigger warnings with other media. For example, those little announcements at the beginning of a show or movie stating that it contains sexual violence or other mature content and “viewer discretion is advised”? Those are examples of trigger warnings. It lets people know that these are issues that are going to come up so that if the viewer doesn’t feel able or willing to deal with such issues, they can choose not to watch the show or movie.
Why is this important? Many people can be easily “triggered” by graphic material, especially people who are mentally ill or who are trauma survivors. If they are subjected to these types of images or descriptions, it can cause pretty severe reactions. For someone who has survived traumatic events, being caught off guard by depictions of similar things can cause them to have very mentally distressing flashbacks of that event. And for people with a mental illness like depression, certain things (like self-harm or suicide) might cause very strong emotional reactions that may lead to them then going and self-harming or attempting suicide themselves. Trigger warnings give them a chance to either mentally prepare themselves to deal with the subject if they’re able or to stop watching/reading and avoid the material and thus avoid a situation they don’t currently feel able to deal with.
So why don’t books have these warnings? Well, I can’t really answer that question. For some reason, even as the film and TV industries have made such warnings commonplace, the same has not happened in the publishing industry. And recent conversations among readers have caused a lot of arguments. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post, many people do support the integration of trigger warnings into books. We want to make books and, by extension, reading an accessible activity and a safe space for everyone to be able to enjoy. Trigger warnings are an essential first step to that. But others feel that trigger warnings are spoilers and therefore don’t support their use.
I’ll admit, I can kind of understand where these people are coming from. I hate spoilers. When I read, I like things to be as surprising and new to me as possible. I am one of those people who will avoid spoilers as much as possible. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think spoilers are worse than or equivalent to damaging someone’s mental health and I also don’t think trigger warnings are spoilers.
Does the warning for a movie stating that it has sexual violence ruin the whole movie for you? No! You know that it happens at some point in the film, sure, but you don’t know when it happens or who it happens to. It really doesn’t spoil anything about the movie. Trigger warnings for books wouldn’t either. Knowing that at some point there’s a rape scene wouldn’t ruin the whole book for you. But it would give people who need it a chance to prepare themselves for it.
Besides, even if trigger warnings were spoilers (which okay, some people think they are – fine), there are ways to incorporate them into a book without forcing everyone to look at them. Something as simple as putting the trigger warnings on a page at the back of the book, with a note one a front page that they’re located there, could work perfectly. As long as people know the page is there (because let’s be honest, how many times have you finished a book before realizing there was a glossary that would’ve cleared up so much confusion?), this would allow people who need trigger warnings to access them without spoiling things for anyone else.
This post is getting a little long (can you tell this is something I have a lot of thoughts on?), so I’ll stop here. To sum up my thoughts: trigger warnings are an important part of making reading accessible to and safe for people who have experienced traumatic events or who have mental illnesses and they can be included into books without spoiling other readers. The publishing industry should make an effort to make trigger warnings commonplace.