Trigger warnings have gained a lot of attention recently with the majority of the commentary being negative.
This criticism usually comes from an educational standpoint. Those who are against trigger warnings claim that attempting to eliminate any and all forms of emotional stress or discomfort for students in a classroom setting is “coddling” them, and that by default they prevent important conversations about uncomfortable subjects from happening.
However, the argument against trigger warnings comes with the assumption that a student’s need to avoid triggering subjects or images strictly comes from a desire to remain comfortable. The truth is that for a lot of people, trigger warnings don’t just provide comfort, they provide opportunity and choice, which is something that a lot of people with PTSD and anxiety disorders don’t often get.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I have had the experience of having to leave a classroom because of a triggering conversation. In that instance, I was not given the option to leave before the conversation started, and ended up running out of the room mid panic attack, embarrassed and ashamed. I was ashamed because I felt like I was a freak; that I was weak and unintelligent for not being able to force myself to sit through a conversation about sexual violence. I didn’t go back to that class for a week. I was afraid that I would have another panic attack, or that someone would mention my previous outburst.
The opportunity to further my education was stalled in that moment, and I had to make a decision between continuing with the class or taking care of my mental health. I chose my health, and I suffered academically because of it.
One small trigger can radically change the trajectory for someone who suffers from a mental illness. When you compare one conversation that a student may miss because they feel it would be harmful to them, to an entire semester that they would either struggle through or not be able to complete, trigger warnings suddenly become very important. They are no longer a precaution, but a necessity. They are a way to make sure that I can continue my educational experience without having to worry about how I’m going to get through the rest of the day.
It’s true that you cannot eliminate every possible trigger from your life, and that sometimes facing those triggers head on can help your recovery. However, facing your triggers is something that should happen only when you are prepared for it, and it should be done in a setting with a trained professional, not in a classroom, where you are surrounded by your peers and worried about receiving a grade for it.
Trigger warnings are about empathy, and about understanding that there may be people in that room who have had experiences that they do not want to relive because of something that everyone else just views as an educational experience. They don’t stop important conversations from happening, rather they create a more respectful environment for them to happen in. When teachers and professors give trigger warnings, it reminds the rest of the class that these experiences that they may be using for educational purposes, have actually happened to people, possibly someone in the room. It gives the students in the room who have experienced trauma a choice or whether they want to revisit that experience or not, and sometimes, if they feel the room will treat their experience with respect, they will be open to facing that trauma.
Not using trigger warnings can be a sign to students that their mental well being and educational experience is less important than everyone else’s. Conversations about topics like sexual violence, racism, sexism, and other triggering topics do have to happen, but allowing them to happen in an environment that is toxic to students will do more harm than it will good.
It is not our job to decide which triggers are valid and which ones or not, and it is not our decision as to whether or not a student should face their past trauma in a classroom. Asking students to be more mindful of not just their own mental health, but the mental health of others is not “coddling” them, it’s encouraging them to be empathetic human beings. If our educational systems view teaching students to think like human beings instead of like textbooks as counterproductive, then trigger warnings are truly the least of our problems.