The Case for Trigger Warnings

September 16, 2016

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This article contains a trigger warning for trigger warnings.

Okay, that’s facetious. There has been a lot of backlash against trigger warnings lately, especially at universities. Recently, the University of Chicago put out a letter saying that it did not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” because of the university’s “commitment to academic freedom.”e

Now, academic freedom is a wonderful thing, as is freedom of speech at large. As a daughter of immigrants who grew up in the USSR, I like to think that I understand the importance of open conversation better than many. Discourse is unquestionably vital to society. Sharing ideas illuminates points we hadn’t thought to consider, and may even change our minds.

We should not shy away from uncomfortable topics. Rather, it is important to consider the reasons why these topics are uncomfortable and ways to make them less so—for example, sexual assault is endemic across college campuses in the United States, and that’s not something people particularly enjoy discussing. It upsets us to think that it might happen to someone we love, or that a person that we trust could be capable of perpetrating such a despicable act. This discomfort is natural, but it inspires us to work to solve the problem of campus sexual assault, a necessary action.

However, there are some people who should not be made to engage in those conversations. People who have experienced sexual trauma in the past are likely to find the conversations not just uncomfortable, but deeply upsetting, and they may “trigger” (hence the name ‘trigger warning’) an episode of their mental illness. A setback at a critical point in therapy can be devastating for a trauma survivor, and can cause untold damage (and may potentially have irreversible consequences, up to and including suicide, such as in the case of Lindsay Armstrong, a 16 year old who committed suicide after being retraumatized during her trial).

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to issues of sexual violence. Trigger warnings are often used for discussions of suicide, self-harming, eating disorders, violence, abuse, and many more. The type and frequency of trigger warnings used depends largely on the situation; while it would be odd to use a trigger warning for clothes shopping in general conversation, they are commonly requested and used in spaces for people with eating disorders, as discussion about clothes shopping can trigger negative body image and (dangerous) disordered behavior.

So what about college campuses, then? Should we use them at Georgetown?

Here’s how I think of it: it is nothing less than the responsibility of the University to provide adequate and appropriate trigger warnings for students. Students cannot and should not be required to sit quietly and listen to a conversation, however well-intentioned it may be, that triggers episodes of mental illness or traumatic memories, especially not entirely unwarned. Refusing to provide trigger warnings in situations where they are clearly relevant causes direct and needless harm. Nobody would expect a student to sit quietly and endure being physically harmed, so why would we expect that of a student if it concerns the mind rather than the body?

Of course, situations exist where students cannot be exempt from a conversation—for example, a mentally ill psychology major cannot avoid all discussion of mental illness in classes—doing so would compromise a substantial portion of that student’s education. Still, even in this case, trigger warnings prove useful. If the student knows in advance that a triggering subject will be discussed, they can seek the proper resources to cope with it, such as scheduling a therapy session for after a particularly difficult class or learning strategies to remain calm during lectures. In cases like these, nobody’s education is compromised, and everyone remains safe.

Ultimately, it isn’t hard for a professor to say, at the end of a lecture, “We’re going to be discussing self-harm in next week’s classes, if you feel like that might negatively impact your mental health, come talk to me.” It takes one sentence to warn students in advance that a speaker coming to campus plans on discussing their experiences with abusive parents. These things are easier than many other accessibility measures the University unquestioningly employs like wheelchair ramps.

Trigger warnings don’t argue the lecturer can’t discuss self-harm in their class, or that the speaker isn’t allowed to come to campus. Healthy discussion would still take place, but students would remain safe throughout, either by sitting out of non-essential situations or by adequately preparing themselves for them.

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