On college campuses across the United States, professors are feeling obligated to manage their classes around the sensitivities of their students. Trigger warnings are being spread throughout syllabi, and professors are taking extra care to avoid certain words or phrases that could potentially offend any of their students.
Trigger warnings are meant to protect people who have previously experienced trauma. In many cases, a sound, sight or smell can retrigger an emotional response from someone who has gone through a traumatic event, causing feelings of sadness, anxiety or panic. For example, a discussion about sexual violence in a college government class may trigger unwanted feelings for someone who is a victim of sexual assault.
In September 2015, The Atlantic released a cover story about how trigger warnings are not only bad for education, but mental health as well. The article said that students who have experienced trauma should not be using trigger warnings as an excuse to completely avoid potentially triggering content. Instead, they should prepare themselves to engage with it in a safe and non-triggering way.
Previous studies from the U.S. National Library of Medicine have shown that methods of psychological treatment which involve prolonged exposure to the very memory of the trauma gives survivors a chance to face their fears and gain better control of their thoughts and feelings.
What Are Trigger Warnings?
Originally, trigger warnings were brought into college classrooms to protect students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These trigger warnings were meant to notify people with PTSD of potentially triggering language so they could avoid it or proceed with caution.
The way triggers are formed in the mind of someone who has PTSD can be different for everyone. However, a number of theories have been presented of the subject. One of the main theories focuses on a person’s sensory memory. During a traumatic event, a person will likely have a number of sensory experiences that then become linked with their memory of the trauma. Moving forward, if they were to come into contact with the particular smell, for example, that is linked to the memory of that trauma, it could trigger an emotional response by bringing back thoughts and feelings surrounding that traumatic event.
Trauma and the Development of PTSD
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD, however. In fact, the numbers are very small. According to the study, The Stressor Criterion in DSM-IV Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An Empirical Investigation, 89.6% of the 2,181 adults who participated in the survey reported experiencing trauma, such as rape, serious accidents, natural disasters or the sudden death of a loved one. However, only 9% of those subjects later developed PTSD.
Furthermore, results from a study conducted by clinical psychologist Barbara O. Rothbaum determined that most sexual assault victims can naturally recover from PTSD within three months of the assault. During the study, A Prospective Examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Rape Victims, Rothbaum examined the symptoms of 95 rape or attempted rape survivors, and found that 94% met the symptomatic criteria for PTSD two weeks after the trauma. Approximately one month after the trauma, that number dropped to 65%, and then decreased again to 47% three months after the trauma.
Facing Triggers to Overcome PTSD
Confronting things that trigger the memory of a traumatic event is the best way to overcome PTSD, according to a number of studies.
“One of the most important treatments for PTSD is exposure therapy, which helps patients unlearn the associations between traumatic events and triggers so that they can start functioning again,” wrote psychiatrist Sarah Roff in a post for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Another common treatment similar to exposure therapy is narrative therapy. This requires the patient to tell their story multiple times in the first person. After repeating this exercise, patients are expected to experience a decrease in PTSD-related symptoms, because memories the patient associates with the trauma have lost their capacity to cause emotional distress.
Both of these treatment methods involve exposing the patient to their trauma or potential triggers of it numerous times. This, however, brings up the controversial topic of trigger warnings in the college classroom and how they affect the mental health of students.
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Trigger Warnings and the Mental Health of College Students
“As a psychiatrist, I nonetheless have to question whether trigger warnings are in such students’ best interests,” Roff wrote. “One of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which can become the most impairing symptom of all.”
According to Roff’s article, “The solution is not to help these students dig themselves further into a life of fear and avoidance by allowing them to keep away from upsetting material.”
According to a study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, “avoidance of stimuli that are associated with the traumatic event is a key feature of PTSD.”
Roff also cautioned that trigger warnings may not prevent distress as intended.
“The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into people’s lives by networks of association,” she wrote. “Someone who has been raped by a man in a yellow shirt at a bus stop may start avoiding not only men, but bus stops and perhaps even anyone wearing yellow.”
It seems there would never be enough warnings to keep up with all of the potential triggers, and according to Roff, it isn’t the job of college instructors to foster them.
Instead, she proposed teaching faculty members and students how to correctly respond if they come into contact with a student who has experienced trauma. Students who have an intense response to potentially triggering class content should be referred to health services so they can be evaluated and given treatment based on their particular needs.
Others see trigger warnings as a way to allow those with PTSD or any other clinical disorder to effectively manage their mental health. When used correctly, trigger warnings can provide a “heads up” in regards to potentially triggering classroom content not so students can completely avoid the material, but so they can prepare themselves to engage with it in a controlled way.
“With appropriate warnings in place, vulnerable students may be able to employ effective anxiety management techniques, by meditating or taking prescribed medication,” wrote Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, in an article for The New York Times.
There is no written formula that tells professors when to use trigger warnings and when not to, which is why in some cases, the sensitivities of students are beginning to go so far as to dictate what professors are choosing to teach. With their jobs at stake in the event of a student complaint, some professors are taking extra care by not discussing any kind of content that may be even remotely triggering to someone in the class.
Some argue that professors in support of trigger warnings should be able to use common sense to decipher between the topics that need warnings and the ones that don’t. For example, topics such as religion or politics may elicit negative emotional responses, but that doesn’t mean they require a trigger warning. Anger is an emotional state, which professors and students should be able to control with rational explanation, unlike a state of panic.
“Although I see a willingness to use trigger warnings as part of pedagogical best practices, I don’t believe their use should be mandatory,” wrote Manne. “But when it comes to the bottom-up pressure from students on professors to adopt practices like giving trigger warnings, I am sympathetic.”
“It’s not about coddling anyone,” Manne concluded. “It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.”
The decision to include trigger warnings on a class syllabus is one that should not be taken lightly and should take place after a lengthy amount of research. Are trigger warnings benefiting students who suffer from PTSD? And, how are they affecting students with no mental health issues?
“One of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings is that they will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history,” Roff wrote.
“During my training as a psychiatrist, I have seen how the after-effects of trauma can destroy lives, but I remain convinced that discussion and debate are among the most important things a college education has to offer,” she concluded.