Trigger warnings vs pathetic snowflakes: how PTSD sufferers became political pawns

Whether it’s an attack from the right or being wrapped in cotton wool by the left, both sides speak over and for us – but neither pays any attention.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

You know when a tweet really, really pisses you off? I, as a Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferer, saw one this morning.

 “Clapping is banned at University of Manchester Student Union events ‘to avoid triggering anxiety and improve accessibility.’ Students will instead use silent ‘jazz hands’. Glad some brave young souls decided to ignore the difficulties caused by sudden noises 100 years ago,” wrote normally decent and sensitive broadcaster Jeremy Vine, along with pictures constrasting some brave Tommies in a WW1 trench with some clapping pathetic millennial snowflakes.

I’m absolutely sick and tired of this sort of reductive tug of war over me and fellow sufferers. For the last few years it feels like we have been a pawn in a culture war, where both sides speak over and for us, without either paying any attention.

On one hand, as a PTSD sufferer, I would like people to stop casualising and minimising the condition. In this country, there’s a terrible tendency to constantly valorise the WW1 experience or service in Afghan or Iraq as the only sort of thing that gives you “real PTSD”.

In particular, I remember Piers Morgan delivering a twitter lecture on this subject with all his usual charm; a level of charisma usually associated with a terminally ill seagull vomiting into a bag of mouldy chips.  

Piers basically said to an audience of millions that soldiers get PTSD and no one else does, and that anyone else saying they had PTSD was a lying pathetic snowflake wimp, or words to that effect.

This is patently bollocks – even Morgan has rowed back. Most of the people in the support group I was in got PTSD in civilian life; they were survivors of sexual assaults, road traffic and construction accidents.  

Morgan’s attitude is widespread though – other survivors have said to me they feel I'm lucky that I have the “classic” form of PSTD, something picked up covering a war as an under-trained, stupid journalist taking too many risks (I've written about what happened to me before, here, if you're interested).

You’d think the nonsense macho lie that only enduring an artillery barrage while being machine gunned is “enough” to cause lasting psychological damage is easily refuted, but plenty of people believe it – not least sufferers themselves. 

The shame of admitting you have a problem  of feeling your experience wasn’t traumatic enough is a huge barrier to people seeking help, and to relatives and friends understanding the problems PTSD sufferers face.

Beyond this, there’s a whole internet culture of shouting “LOL TRIGGERED” at people who show any emotion to the point that an edgy US film company (the idiots behind the Netflix movie Bright) have called themselves “Trigger Warning Entertainment”. It’s funny because PTSD triggers are somehow now a big, old laughing stock.

Partially, this is down to very well-meaning people trying to “solve” PTSD and other anxiety disorders by doing things like replacing clapping with jazz hands, or affixing trigger warnings to things that simply don’t need it. I think the strangest trigger warning I’ve ever seen was “TW: Slimy things”.

To be sure, PTSD triggers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes  my own are bangs behind me, diesel engines turning over, and being touched by wet skin.

 I hate nightclubs, buses and bonfire night, but realise that being triggered means it’s on you to minimize your exposure and get treatment. At some point you have to accept the right of other people to express and enjoy themselves, and if you expect society to change you could be waiting a very long time.

I realise there are people who have very unusual triggers; I know someone from a support group who is triggered by curtains blowing in the wind. This sounds ludicrous until she tells you that a flapping curtain was what she focused on as she was raped. Similarly, I'm sure there are some who are triggered by clapping, but struggle to believe that it can be a sufficiently common PTSD trigger to require a broad societal response. My friend isn’t trying to ban curtains; I’m not trying to ban bonfire night, and if you’re triggered by applause you can’t try to end clapping.

I know that much like trigger warnings on books or films, the notion comes from a good place – I’m never going to complain if I see a trigger warning about sexual violence, for example but the massive overuse of this sort of thing, and over-concern for welfare, frequently taken without consulting the majority of sufferers, feeds into the perception that PTSD is a nonsense “snowflake” condition.

I’m also frustratingly aware that the “jazz hands instead of applause” thing doesn’t originate with PTSD sufferers, and is instead far more likely to stem from collective decision making, and, to an extent, from trying to make life easier for people with Autism.

However, the “jazz hands instead of clapping because of PTSD” has become such a pervasive myth in culture – a sort of “the council is abolishing Christmas in favor of Winterval” of psychological disorders  that people on both sides of politics want to take it and run with it. 

It perfectly sums up what each side thinks of the other; the right claiming their opposition are pathetic, weird, over-sensitive freaks with completely unrealistic demands of the rest of society, the left arguing that the right are heartless, bastard scum who won’t even deign to stop clapping for these poor, helpless mentally ill people we could save.

For the sake of me and my fellow sufferers, can you all just please fucking stop it.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.