The past few months have seen several American colleges assert their reluctance to provide trigger warnings before lessons involving potentially triggering material. What students had thought to be a reasonable and easily-granted request has turned into a much debated subject amongst faculties, students and the media.

Trigger warnings, often found on Tumblr and other social-justice corners of the internet are warnings which precede articles which could trigger sufferers of traumatic events to panic attacks and other symptoms of PTSD. These usually apply to descriptions or images relating to sexual abuse and rape, self-harm or unhealthy body image.

Colleges have not reacted positively to the request, with one student at the University of California stating, that the University’s reaction has been, ‘“Life is life. You are going to get your feelings hurt and you should just suck it up and meet it head-on.” But a girl just raped a month ago and sitting in a classroom for the first time again isn’t ready to face that head-on.’

Commentators in agreement with the universities’ refusal have said that trigger warnings are infantilising. While verbal warnings that some subjects are going to be difficult are necessary, one lecturer at Temple University, herself a rape survivor, said ‘Sometimes, I think you can get triggered by trigger warnings.’ There is also some debate over what content deserves a trigger warning, with Guardian journalist, Jill Filipovic, citing the ever-expanding list to include ‘calories in a food item’, ‘Nazi paraphenalia’, ‘slimy things’ and ‘holes.’

A main concern is that it was the student body who asked for the consideration to be made. This was not an institutional ‘low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues’, but requested by the very people who felt themselves at risk.

At the same time, universities are places where dialogues are possible and encouraged, and where mental health support systems should be in place, unlike the internet, however well meaning it can be. Discussion points should not be nipped in the bud because of a blanket warning, which may colour students’ approach to texts or issue.

One academic senate concluded that their ‘overall goal is to foster a climate of inquiry that allows students to learn, and faculty to teach, as freely and productively as possible,’ rather than an environment which is a safe-zone, intellectually or emotionally.

[Caitlin MacColl]

1 Comment

  1. I’m not sure I agree that colleges or universities are where students should be getting mental health help/assistance. As far as academics are concerned, yes but not for post-traumatic stress disorder.

    If a student is taking a course where it’s expected that material they find difficult to handle may be introduced, then it’s their responsibility to communicate to the instructor or the assistant of what their needs or issues are.

    If we start tagging communication based on everything that may upset someone, we’re going disrupt communication and understanding rather than foster it.

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