Before you read this blog post, let me assure you that I believe every student should have access to a positive learning environment. I am in no way advocating that we should start making students fight to survive in a distressing domain. However, there is a movement spreading wildly through post-secondary campuses to offer students increasing protection from ideas they do not like and words that make them uncomfortable. To date, there is no scientific evidence that coddling students is having a positive impact on society or on their future; the widespread use of trigger warnings could be dangerous for mental health. In an article written for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pose the question: “What exactly are students learning when they spend four or more years in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence…?” (1). Using warnings to protect students from potentially harmful ideas is setting them up for larger issues once they leave the “safe space” campuses that have been created for them. Instead, let’s help teach students how to cope with these potentially triggering situations.
Assisting people’s efforts to avoid their fears is misguided. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a non-pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness that would be more beneficial to students than using trigger warnings. CBT involves the patient working with a mental health counselor to help him or her “become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so [he/she] can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way” (2). The basis of the process is simple: notice that you’re being affected by a stressor, name it, describe the facts of the situation, and consider alternative interpretations. After treatment, people are less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and anger. Over time, this process becomes more automatic and also helps enhance critical thinking skills. This method can further be combined with exposure therapy, where a patient’s cognitive distortions are diluted with a gradual increase of exposure to the offending scenario. Over time, using either approach, the triggered reaction would deflated. You can’t always control the situation, but you can control how your thoughts, actions and feelings affect the situation.
Keep in mind that I am not an expert. I am not prescribing treatment, nor am I making false promises for results I cannot guarantee (which in this case – I can’t). I’m also not naïve enough to think that cognitive behavioural therapy or exposure therapy are one-stop solutions that will work for everyone. Every person and situation is different. Furthermore, not every reaction to trauma will require the use of one of these coping mechanisms.
Where is all this coming from? Straight out of high school, I attended college. I earned my diploma, worked in my field for a couple years, and then decided it wasn’t the right fit for me. As someone who has recently made the transition back to academia from the “real world,” I’m rather shocked at how hard it is to say the right thing anymore. It can be very tricky to live in a world where “I’m offended” could be used at any given time as an unbeatable trump card. Constantly having to worry about whether an answer you give in class will elicit an upsetting response while discussing the assigned material is exhausting. As a student, I would prefer to utilize the nonthreatening environment of the classroom to discuss controversial topics instead of feeling limited by uncertain restrictions.
The above methods do not entirely invalidate the need for trigger warnings on certain material. They are an excellent temporary solution. It would be more practical long term to negotiate coping mechanisms in a classroom environment before students are released into the “real world.” Throughout elementary and into high school, students are sheltered to protect them. A safe space is provided to nurture students as they mature. In the infamous life after school people keep talking about, it is likely you will have to engage with people and ideas that make you uncomfortable. Outside of the classroom, there will be significantly less protection from any potential stressors. The long-term benefits of developing proper coping mechanisms should not be diminished.
This post was inspired by “The Coddling of the American Mind” written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff for The Atlantic’s September 2015 issue. You can view their full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
To read more on trigger warnings, check out the Centre for Teaching Excellence’s tip sheet here: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/creating-positive-learning-environment/trigger-warnings-and-content-notes-inviting-all-students
(1) The Atlantic – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
(2) The Mayo Clinic – http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/home/ovc-20186868