A recent bout of listserv emails from the Princeton undergraduate chapter of Letters to Strangers (L2S) left me unsettled. When my friends questioned why I was so jarred, it took me awhile to be able to pinpoint exactly why. L2S is a cute and often harmless group. Its main shtick is organizing biannual, anonymous letter exchanges as a form of friendly support, often during important testing periods. The letter I received from them around Dean’s Date last spring fit the general perceptions I had of the group: it was cute, wholesome, and appropriately endearing.
What, then, compelled its organizers to begin their recruitment emails with a solitary, clickbait line about youth suicide statistics — and to forgo any sort of content or trigger warning?
This sort of behavior may not strike many people as inappropriate on its surface.
Globally, L2S advocates for awareness of various mental-health conditions, particularly those affecting youth populations. And there’s important work to do in both making invisible illnesses visible and giving voice to those who no longer have a voice to bear witness to their struggles.
In the service of somewhat detached organizations, the all-too-casual citation of mental-health statistics aesthetically capitalizes upon a marginalized group’s collective pain and grief. The power dynamics involved when neurotypical persons add and drop such lines with no costs to themselves are inherently problematic and, in certain cases, jarringly injudicious.
Incautious treatment of triggering subject manner surrounding mental health for personal gain can be a less talked about form of sadfishing, or using emotional subject manner to garner attention, rather than strictly in order to seek help or raise awareness. Here, intention is morally important. A great deal of passionate, empowering nonprofit organizations utilize social media posts, short blurbs, and advertisements with the direct intention of raising awareness about suicide and its prevalence. The best of these organizations link their posts and blurbs to longer information sources on how to receive help if someone is in need.
Often, due to the purpose of raising awareness, it ends up being most effective to design these outreaches in the least triggering way possible and to leave out a trigger or content warning that could hinder their spread. In essence, certain nonprofits simply want to help people, and they try to do so in a way that does the least harm.
But when our inboxes and feeds are flooded with triggering material by both altruistic outreaches and self-interested campaigns, even basic tasks such as checking emails can turn into unsafe spaces — both for those who may be triggered and for an average onlooker. Sloppy outreach navigates a precarious balance between reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and inadvertently normalizing emergency situations. The more commonplace a situation may seem, the slower we may react to it.
Constantly viewing the trivialization of mental health statistics — and perhaps falsely believing that sending an anonymous letter to a stranger once a semester is an effective mode of suicide prevention — runs the risk of habituating the onlooker into not only thinking that the problems are so large that individuals cannot be of much help, but also that they are already being taken care of. Distancing individuals from taking immediate responsibility of preventing suicide is one of the absolute worst things that can occur right now in the American mental health landscape.
The simplest way to prevent this distancing, and to ensure our ethical usage of triggering content, is to think. There are some basic questions we can ask ourselves before putting information out there for the public: Is what I am putting out there sensitive? If so, what is my purpose in using this content? Who is directly benefiting from my usage of this information? If the content is especially visceral, have I included a content or trigger warning? Finally, have I followed up on this content in a sensitive manner, and not simply dropped a statistic?
Anna McGee is a sophomore from Paducah, Ky. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you need to talk to someone, please refer to:
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS): Call 609-258-3141; for emergencies: 609-258-3333. An on-call counselor is available every day after hours.
- CONTACT of Mercer County: Call 609-896-2120 or 609-585-2244.
- Princeton Peer Nightline: Call 609-258-0279 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.; visit http://princetonpeernightline.com, open Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255.