The issue of “triggers” in relation to mental health and mental illness has come up recently. This has been particularly true in light of the conversation around the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” This series depicts the suicide of a young, teenage girl through the eyes of the people who may have “caused” it. The issue, though, is how the series might trigger those who already have suicidal proclivities and intrusive thoughts.
Now, the first thing we need to talk about is the nature of the “trigger.” According to this piece on Psych Central, “a trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of his/her original trauma.” I think this is a good starting point, especially since the article I quote is about sexual assault. I would say that a trigger is something that uses one or more of the five senses to transport a person to another event.
Let me explain.
My wife and I had a beautiful, outside wedding. One of the flowers that we had were calla lilies, which is one of my wife’s favorites. They were a prominent part of the bouquets and flowers for the wedding. And, every time that my wife sees or encounters a calla lilly, she is transported to the event of our wedding. The calla lilly triggers a memory and brings her back to another event. This is the way that triggers act for most people. They are simply something – a sight, a taste, a sound, a smell, or a feel – that transports someone back and allows them to relive a memory. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Except when it is.
Coming back to “13 Reasons Why,” the reason for the controversy around the show is that it is very triggering for those who have made a suicide attempt. It is not that it makes someone uncomfortable or that it is hard to watch, but that someone is transported back to the feelings and the traumas and the hurts and the pain that comes with their own suicidal ideation and there is nothing in the show, no warning or help, that does anything to mitigate this (a simple showing of the suicide prevention hotline – 1-800-273-8255 – or the Crisis Text Line – Text START to 741741 would have done much good). Instead, the producers of the show allowed the triggers to exist and for people to experience them. And they seemingly did it without understanding the impact that their choices might make.
But, “13 Reasons Why” is not why I am writing this post. It’s the fact that the idea of trigger is often misunderstood. The problem with the nature of the trigger is that the person who has experienced a trauma might not know what may trigger them. Going back to the case of sexual assault, a victim may know that rape scenes in a movie or book trigger those emotions. However, there might exist other triggers, such as walking through the mall and smelling the same cologne that the perpetrator wore or hearing someone say something in the same cadence as the perpetrator. These are triggers that cannot be avoided and that those who have experienced trauma cannot control. They are truly unpredictable.
And it is this unpredictability that causes people to want to control the triggers that they do example. For example, I read the book “13 Reasons Why” and enjoyed it. I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time, but I still read it. And because I was in control of the book, it was not that bad. I got through it without any major problems. But, I also know that I have a much harder time watching something like suicide as it is depicted on TV or in a movie. That is something that triggers me and so I tend to avoid it because I do not want to bring a number of suicidal thoughts to the fore. I have enough trouble controlling them, I do not need to actively cultivate them. And it’s my choice to avoid the trigger so as to bring some semblance of control over my ideation.
All of this is to say that triggers are real, quite real. And they make people relive trauma that they have been through, whether that is an assault, rape, war, abuse, or their own mental illness. The real trick is to be mindful of the fact that these things do exist and that they are often unconscious. In light of that, it’s necessary to be mindful of the fact that other people may be experiencing something completely different and may be reliving hurt and pain that you cannot know. And this is why it is important to create safe spaces and teach those in authority what it means to not be an intentional trigger, as there are enough unintentional triggers out there.