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Trigger Warnings: How They Support Students and Improve Education

Trigger warnings have generated considerable discussion recently. An article in the Lesley Public Post last week addressed some common objections to trigger warnings. A notorious article from The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, claims that trigger warnings constitute a form of censorship, an act of indulgence preventing “oversensitive” individuals from exposure to uncomfortable content. It is certainly not an unusual perspective.

A closer examination of trigger warnings, however, shows that they actually expand access to educational opportunities and even reduce the need for censorship. Many researchers, educators, mental health care providers, and students have found that trigger warnings make it possible for controversial or sensitive material to be included in a curriculum, and for the class to benefit from it. Taking the time to better understand trigger warnings and the purpose they serve would be highly advantageous for many in the Lesley community, who are currently or will someday be working with vulnerable populations.

The concept of “triggers” came out of the emerging contemporary understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Psychology and medical science are increasingly recognizing the physiological symptoms experienced by trauma survivors in response to reminders of the trauma they experienced. PTSD initially gained recognition in the early 1900s as health care providers tried to understand symptoms presenting in war veterans. Today we know PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, and that secondary survivors (friends, family members, counselors, and other support people) can experience symptoms too. Symptoms can include reliving the traumatic event as though it is actually recurring (such as through flashbacks or nightmares), avoidance behaviors, mood disturbance (such as depression or hyperaggression), dissociation, hyperarousal (feeling and behaving as if in danger), self-injurious behaviors, and suicidality. Physical symptoms may include headaches, sleep disruption, chills, shaking, heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and panic attacks. A “trigger”, in this context, is something which causes someone who has a trauma history to experience PTSD symptoms.

PTSD is classified as a psychiatric disability, and is a protected category under the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with other mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder, can also experience trigger symptoms. Universities in the United States are legally obligated to comply with the ADA by providing reasonable accommodations for students with psychiatric and other disabilities. Beyond the legalities, it is in the best interest of all members of educational communities seeking to further the pursuit of knowledge to provide an environment as conducive to learning as possible.

Critics of trigger warnings argue that these warnings reduce learning opportunities. Perhaps they misunderstand the purpose that they serve. Trigger warnings do not prevent students from being “offended” or from having to engage with something which may upset them. Trigger warnings ensure that students with trauma history and/or other psychiatric disabilities have the information they need to manage their symptoms. They make it possible for students to assess how to engage with the content safely. A student who is triggered because they were not warned about the content may be unable to learn the material at all. They may experience symptoms described previously, making it difficult or impossible to learn. A student who is exposed to triggering content repeatedly without warning in a certain class may have to drop that class. Certainly they cannot learn from a class they cannot take.

I myself have PTSD, and experience many of those symptoms if my PTSD is triggered. With sufficient warning, I can avoid those symptoms. It might just take a simple action, like taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I’m safe, and just that can make it possible for me to read potentially-triggering content without suddenly feeling as though I’m re-living trauma and having to disengage entirely. I might need a more concrete action, such as having my safety plan nearby to remind me what to do if I start dissociating or having a panic attack. If I’ve already been triggered by something else that day and this content might be too much, I can try again later, or the next day, or a few days later. I have lots of creative strategies, too! For example, it helps me to listen to angry music while reading content about trauma, and then immediately switch to something soothing after I’d finished. In extreme circumstances I might request an alternate way to complete an assignment, but with sufficient warning, that’s almost never necessary. A warning makes it possible for me to make those choices and learn from the material!

One of Lesley’s institutional strengths is its potential to offer sensitive, trauma-informed academic educations to students who are likely to work in professions such as counseling, education, and human services where they in turn will encounter many trauma survivors. Taking the needs of students with PTSD or other mental health needs into consideration is one way that Lesley can model this for other universities. While certainly there is merit to the argument that censorship undermines educational institutions, it is fallacious to equate trigger warnings with censorship. On the contrary, it makes it more likely that students will be able to engage with the content, preventing the need for censorship. It is a simple way that instructors can support their students and improve the quality of the learning environment.

4 Responses »

  1. Beautifully written, Danni Green. Because I read your article, I have a better understanding of the relationship between triggers and critical material, and how trigger warnings are supposed to work. Thank you.

  2. An essential read, especially for educators.

  3. Thank you for this informative article.

  4. There are an infinite number of things that could trigger a person. Who gets to determine which ones get a warning? Professors should be free to use trigger warnings if they choose, they should not be penalized if they don’t.

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