Trigger warnings belong in the classroom


By Kaanan Raja

At the very beginning of the semester, my Abnormal Psychology teaching assistant started off the class stating, “If, for any reason, the videos or images I present to you in class are ever a trigger, please feel free to step in the hallway for a moment. I’ll always give you a warning right before, as well.”

My class covers a lot of heavy material; we study disorders ranging from schizophrenia to major depressive disorder.

As a mental health professional himself, my TA is experienced with clients who come in with anxiety, PTSD, phobias or have experienced any range of trauma and therefore, probably understands the importance of trigger warnings.

A trigger warning is simply a statement at the beginning of a text or film that allows the audience to know that something potentially distressing will appear. They are especially beneficial in individuals that have undergone trauma or have particularly damaging emotional responses, such as post-traumatic flashbacks or panic attacks.

However, not many individuals share this view.

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As many of the material in some college classes such as English or History cover material cover emotionally-daunting material, some people believe trigger warnings as an infringement of free speech and have no place on a college campus.

With the prevailing rates of disorders such as PTSD, anxiety and phobias, more professors should incorporate trigger warnings before showing potentially distressing material.

After all, trigger warnings are not a form of censorship, but a form of empathy. And many students recognize this.

In a poll conducted by a Yale University organization, 63 percent of students support the use of trigger warnings by their professors in class.

Since about ten percent of college students meet the criteria for PTSD, 13 percent have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and over 20 percent will experience sexual assault during their college career, the topic of trigger warnings has never been more important nor relevant among students.

I’ve seen the effects of not including a warning before showing potentially disturbing material. During my Intro to American History class last semester, we covered several texts, one of them describing the narrator’s intense and graphic experiences with sexual assault.

My professor hadn’t previously warned us about these pages in the novel and when sitting in class and reading the text out loud, one of my classmates and my friend became extremely upset, looked nauseous and even asked to be excused for a bit. I knew that type of text usually caused her to experience flashbacks of her own struggles with assault, but with no warning, she wasn’t able to gain a moment to prepare herself.

For someone who has experienced trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind with a common reaction often being intense moments of fear and even panic attacks.

While trigger warnings definitely cannot take all of this fear away, it can serve to emotionally prepare individuals who have had to deal with stressors many of us haven’t experienced and couldn’t possibly understand.

A common criticism from naysayers is that trigger warnings don’t actually prepare you for “real life” experiences where many will continuously be exposed to fear-stimulating content. However, for many victims of sexual assault, incest or any other trauma, every day provides panic-inducing moments.

By taking the few seconds involved with writing a trigger warning, professors at the University are not coddling their students, nor are they changing the material they teach in class in any way.
Instead, they’re being sensitive and recognizing that their students are real people with real experiences and concerns. 

Professors of UIUC, I encourage you to increase the use of trigger warnings within your classroom. Not only will you provide a moment of preparation for many of your students that have undergone trauma, but you’ll have made the world a slightly better place simply by expressing empathy for the people around you.

Kaanan is a sophomore in LAS.

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