Can I Write Bluntly About Mental Illness Without Being Triggering?

Published on 3/3/2022

I’ve been writing online about mental illness for almost two years. But even before that, I was writing about it in my manuscripts. My life has been extremely affected by my Borderline Personality Disorder, and I suffered in silence for too long. When I first started experiencing symptoms, I was fifteen and it wasn’t really something I felt I could discuss with anyone. I didn’t even understand it myself. I had never heard of self-harm so I had no idea that this was what I was doing to myself.

I write about mental illness because I don’t want anyone else to live in silence as I did. I want those struggling to know that they’re not the only ones, that there’s a whole community of us who have been there and made it out.

I write about mental illness because I don’t want it to be ‘brave’ or ‘taboo’ to discuss these things. I want to reach a point where it’s normal to talk about your depression, anxiety or eating disorder; where you don’t feel silenced by the world.

But I still walk the tightrope between honesty and triggering; I still feel like I’m learning how to discuss my mental illness online. Because whilst we need to normalise the discussion surrounding mental illness and symptoms, we also need to remember that anyone could be reading this and that people are at different points in their recovery.

I want to be honest

I find it important to be stripped back when I discuss mental illness, whether that’s in an article or novel. I want it to be more than a vague concept. I want people to understand the day to day effects of it. This makes me want to describe how my bulimia existed each day, or how a mind can become so addicted to self-harm.

People who don’t struggle with their mental health often can’t imagine what it’s like. I’m glad they can’t; I want as few people as possible to experience it for themselves. My friend once saw my scars and told me that she couldn't imagine ever hurting herself. I realised that I couldn’t imagine not hurting myself and living without that urge.

By describing mental illnesses, we educate people on the matter. We highlight potential signs, things to look out for. We help them to form empathy for those struggling as they can better imagine how consuming a mental illness can be.

For example, BPD is a highly stigmatized mental illness, and by sharing how difficult my fear of abandonment and emotional mood swings are, I hope to help people understand that we’re not bad people, that we don’t intend to hurt anyone.

I want to be detailed because I want to show readers that I know what I’m talking about. I’ve really struggled with these things. I want someone to read my work and feel less alone, to understand that they’re not crazy. I still remember the first TV show that did that for me and the relief that flooded my body.

Honesty comes with a risk

But even if I intend to make someone feel less alone or spread awareness, that doesn’t mean this will be the effect. Writing details about my eating disorder or depression could do more harm than good, for it could trigger someone in a delicate place.

By writing about the thought process and emotions surrounding self-harm, I might be reminding someone of it. I might be tempting them back to their addiction. You don’t know what position your reader is in, so you don’t know how fragile they could be.

Details can also be misinterpreted as ideas or suggestions. Sharing your personal account could result in someone taking inspiration from your self-sabotaging behaviours. This would never have been your intention, but it could be your effect.

It can also isolate people who struggle but in a different way. It could make them feel as if they’re less valid for not feeling this way. It could make them feel silenced by only having one perspective presented.

Trigger warnings

There’s a lot of debate about trigger warnings, and I’ll say honestly that I don’t fully know where I stand on the matter. I think it is important to keep people safe and to avoid harming someone who is in a delicate position. For example, mentioning if an article will discuss self-harm or sexual assault in detail.

But then to play devil’s advocate: doesn’t this act as a spoiler to what is to come? If we include a trigger warning for a book or film, then we’re essentially highlighting the major plot point. Everyone hates spoilers and what if trigger warnings could inadvertently act as one?

I don’t agree with the idea that people who struggle should just know and avoid these mediums. That sounds a lot easier in theory than practice, because as I said, these are usually major plot points intended to surprise a reader. We can try to be mindful of what we consume, like how I’m avoiding reading ‘A Little Life’ until I’m sure I could handle it, but we’re only human.

I recently read The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan, an incredible book about the rise and fall of a pop star. It’s the first book I’ve read that had a trigger warning at the beginning. At the start, there is an ‘Author’s Note’ that highlights the difficult subjects that will be addressed. Personally, it did make me feel like I was waiting for these subjects to come up, as I knew to expect them. But I’m not someone struggling at the height of my mental illness, as I’m in a stable position, so the trigger warning isn’t intended for me. So is it really up to me to judge its effectiveness? And either way, the book was amazing to read and had many surprises along the way.

Another example of this can be seen in 13 Reasons Why. This Netflix show was adapted from a book, and focuses on why the character of Hannah Baker committed suicide. Having read the book, I can say that the show took quite a leap, although the trigger-ability of the subject is present in the book too. Netflix later added trigger warnings to episodes and cut a graphic scene in which the main character commits suicide. This was directly in response to complaints and a rise in suicide attempts, which many linked to the show. On one hand, the show didn’t skip over difficult things or make them softer to watch in an attempt to highlight how awful these acts are, and how traumatising they can be. But they also seemed like an attempt to shock and scare viewers, rather than the natural pacing of the plot. In the case of 13 Reasons Why, it’s believed that the trigger warning would protect viewers, would cause them to rethink whether they’ll watch this show.

A trigger warning provides the information necessary to make a decision, but it also assumes that someone won’t continue anyway. Some even claim that trigger warnings do more harm than good. It can also be difficult to know what will trigger someone, as everyone reacts differently to trauma.

Perhaps the solution is to always have a trigger warning available in a set place, but somewhere that people could also skip it easily. This would require everyone to know where they could find it if they wanted to, and would mean that people make the choice for themselves. Perhaps the solution is to watch what kind of information we provide. For example, I can discuss the struggle of eating disorders but I have to make sure I’m not giving any tips or ideas to an impressionable reader. I can talk about self-harm but not specify how I used to hurt myself, as this could be interpreted as a suggestion to someone struggling.

I think there is no set rule to discussing mental illness and triggering content. I’d like to think that it comes down to good intentions, that this is what separates my personal accounts from pro-eating disorder websites or other places. I’d like to think that our need to be understood triumphs what someone could take from my work, but I still have my doubts.

Will I be adding trigger warnings to my articles? I already have in some pieces, such as ones that go into more detail or focus entirely on a subject known to be triggering. I’m not sure if I’ll start adding more warnings, but I certainly won’t stop entirely. If I received feedback that suggested it was needed, I’d definitely make this happen.

For now, all we can do is learn and remain open to improving. We can try our best and admit when we made a mistake. We can keep adapting to the world we’re living in and to what our readers respond. We can aim for honesty over blunt descriptions, and focus on what details really matter in the grander scheme of things.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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