A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do

They're rarely used -- and research shows they can help.

The University of Chicago sent a welcome letter to incoming freshmen, posted online Wednesday, where they made it abundantly clear that they do not support “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” in classes or on campus.

In other words, students who may be susceptible to mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorders, are undeserving of a warning that a lecture or guest speaker may aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences.

And just below a promise of inclusivity, respect and diversity, the university also stated that it would not provide zones on campus for students to freely visit where they can be sure to avoid hateful and re-traumatizing rhetoric. (In case, say, someone invites George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who likes to tell college audiences that rape victims are a privileged class on campus.)

But back to the issue of trigger warnings. Read the letter in full below:

”You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement,” part of the note reads. “At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege. But many discussions are not just intellectual exercises for everyone ― people who face discrimination, have experienced violence or simply struggle with brain chemistry are at a disadvantage because they’re potentially dealing with a mental health issue. A desire to be warned about potential triggers has nothing to do with people not wanting to “challenge” themselves academically.

What’s more, research clearly shows that atmospheres that promote negative stereotypes can act as barriers to treatment, furthering stigma and causing additional psychological trauma.

A fundamental misunderstanding of triggering

Trigger warnings and safe spaces aren’t a way to avoid disagreement or debate. The clinical version first appeared back in the the early 1900s when psychologists were working to classify “war neurosis,” or the trauma of serving in the military. That led to the more modern discovery of PTSD and what “triggers” those painful memories of war.

Trigger warnings as we know them today gained steam from blogging platforms that emerged with the digital age, Buzzfeed News reported. They were created as a way to protect users from harmful content that may contribute to pre-existing mental health issues (i.e. sharing photos about an eating disorder that might “trigger” or, worse, “inspire” someone who is currently dealing with anorexia). The debate over using warnings filtered into college classrooms in the past few years.

Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence. Eliminating these advisories and zones on campus suggests that someone should have to listen to someone who questions their humanity or experience.

This kind of insensitive rhetoric also implies that mental health issues or traumatic pasts ― those that require a safe space or a trigger warning ― render a student weak. And that type of attitude silences those who may be struggling.

Research shows that many people don’t speak up when they’re experiencing complications with their mental wellbeing. Referring to potentially serious, damaging content as something that could cause mere “discomfort” delegitimizes someone’s experience. In reality, it’s more than just feeling a little uncomfortable. Mental health disorders ― particularly those following trauma ― can cause panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, problems with concentration and more.

The complicated debate about trigger warnings

The national conversation has been tough on trigger warnings, with many arguing that these advisories have gone too far, impeding academic freedom. Critics of the practice suggest that universities are becoming too “politically correct” with an overuse of trigger warnings, but data suggests that this isn’t necessarily representative of what’s actually occurring on campuses. A 2015 survey found that many professors don’t employ trigger warnings in their classrooms and students aren’t exactly demanding them.

It’s also important to point out that these warnings don’t censor what’s about to be said. They simply create an alert about content in the discussion that could prompt traumatic memories if a person happened to experience something related in the past.

There is not much research on the effectiveness of advisories, but some experts do recommend that professors at least alert students of the content if it could be triggering.

“Whether or not the warnings are required, I still think that it is ethically responsible to share with students your course content so that they can be prepared, given the high rates of sexual assault among college students,” Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor and research director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, told the American Psychological Association in 2014.

At the very least, a small warning about sensitive content isn’t a burden for instructors. A simple message saying “This lecture today pertains to sexual assault,” perhaps, will give students some insight into what’s about to be discussed and those who feel it may influence their mental health will be warned accordingly.

Why the way colleges talk about trigger warnings matters

Despite negative stances on this method of safeguarding psychological wellbeing, mental health is a growing concern for universities. Nearly 30 percent of students in 2014 reported experiencing a psychological health issue that negatively influenced their academic performance. Sexual assault ― which can lead to PTSD, among other conditions ― is also a prevalent issue. Approximately one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college.

While many modes of treatment for mental health issues encourage patients to face their traumas instead of avoiding them, classrooms are not therapist’s offices and professors aren’t mental health professionals. This kind of work requires a controlled and private environment outlined by the practicing clinician.

Twitter users who believe in the benefits of warnings and safe zones fired back at the University of Chicago, taking issue with the belittling tone of the letter:

Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows more than 60 percent of college students who dropped out did so because of a mental health issue, which includes cases like PTSD and trauma.

Should every lecture be flagged if it mentions sex or war? No. Should professors and universities use good judgment when it comes to specific, detailed lessons or speakers that dive into sensitive subjects? Yes. If addressing this clear problem is solved with a small warning for class or providing a space for a student to discuss their beliefs without shame, so be it.

University of Chicago responds

In a statement to The Huffington Post, University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier said that the letter wasn’t meant to imply that trigger warnings and safe spaces would be “eliminated,” but didn’t elaborate.

The university’s statement he shared went on to stress the importance of student support and counseling:

“Separately from the intellectual values expressed in the letter, the University encourages students to make use of the many support resources that exist on campus,” the statement continued. “The University provides numerous resources for students’ well being, including private counseling and other forms of support. There are also many campus groups that offer mutual support for students and other members of our community.”

It’s commendable that the university is affirming their commitment to students’ mental wellbeing. But the welcome letter’s language is, at best, easy to misinterpret and at worst, a warning that issues of support will be on the university’s terms only.

Before You Go

Celebrities On The Importance Of Mental Health

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds