Mental Illness is not a Joke

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In the recent age of digital politics and increasing political polarization, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum have taken to social media to voice their opinions and insult the other side. While this divided rhetoric is a problem on its own, some of the particular jokes, insults, and memes that have become commonplace in political discourse cross the line from simply irritating to seriously problematic. One major example of a political insult taken too far is the trigger warning, an important tool to protect the mental health of those with anxiety, PTSD, or other mental struggles. The devolution of this important coping mechanism to a callous joke is a serious and harmful action of the far right, and it needs to be addressed.

First, it’s important to understand what trigger warnings are. Men and women who suffer from mental illness or have experienced trauma oftentimes depend on trigger warnings to protect their well being. What constitutes as a trigger varies from person to person, and can range from the obvious (a battle scene for a war veteran with PTSD, for example) to the obscure (such as a seemingly-innocuous word or image). Likewise, a person’s reaction to a trigger is just as personal. Triggers can cause anything from mild discomfort to more severe reactions, like panic attacks, flashbacks, or even mental breakdowns. Though triggers and reactions vary person-to-person, the repercussions don’t. Unforeseen triggers evoke serious negative reactions and are detrimental to the mental health of those who are already struggling.

Although exposure to triggers and the subsequent reactions they can cause can be frightening, there is an easy and simple way to avoid this situation altogether. Providing warning before a potential triggering topic or image appears gives those who need it adequate time to mentally prepare him or herself or to leave the area. Since a trigger warning requires little effort on the part of others and can be the difference between somebody having an intensely negative emotional reaction or not, it should only be common courtesy to include trigger warnings in sensitive discussions, texts, images or videos.

Audrey Lucas, a high school senior and one of the 40 million people in the United States living with anxiety, is one such person who benefits from these warnings. When asked why trigger warnings are important to her, Audrey explained, “In my personal experience, trigger warnings could mean the difference in my immediate emotional stability or a total meltdown. There are a few things here and there that could evoke obsessive, unhealthy thought spirals, and giving warning provides an opportunity to avoid that problem altogether.”

Respecting trigger warnings, instead of turning them into a political joke to mock and laugh about, should be a simple human courtesy. Mental illness can be debilitating, and it is cruel to disrespect an enormous mental and physical struggle so that you can make a political joke. When asked what she thinks about the people who disrespect mental health with ableist, mocking rhetoric about trigger warnings, Audrey said, “Clearly, they do not understand the toll that mental illness has on other people’s lives, or how providing these amenities could prevent an unwanted problem…just because you don’t experience something first hand does not mean that it doesn’t exist.” Trigger jokes are not harmless, and there are real people at the receiving end who do not think they are funny.

Trigger warnings are often misunderstood, but that is no excuse for using them as a joke or insult. Mental health needs to be taken seriously by everybody, but perhaps most importantly by those who do not suffer from mental illness and therefore will never fully understand what it is like to live with it. The negative discourse surrounding trigger warnings needs to stop, and in turn, we need to do our part to end the stigma surrounding mental illness and to respect the mechanisms people use to deal with illnesses like anxiety. Mental health is not a joke, and the jests about trigger warnings need to end.

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