Psychology first explored PTSD and ways to avoid triggering its episodes in order to help war veterans; now those advances are available for educators hoping to accommodate and include students suffering from PTSD, from the military and other sources.

Professors of Psychology and Psychiatry have long examined ways to introduce triggering material in classes, drawing on their experience teaching on trauma. Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, states:

Whether or not the warnings are required, I still think that it is ethically responsible to share with students your course content so that they can be prepared, given the high rates of sexual assault among college students.[1]

Newman provides warnings in her course syllabus and offers students ways of excusing themselves from classes on triggering material without leaving them feeling ashamed or embarrassed. She also recommends that universities educate faculty on vicarious trauma:

It’s not possible to warn students about all possible triggers at all times, but it is responsible to know that students are grappling with difficulties and deserve to be aware of the topics in the course, just like you’d make them aware of the grading criteria.[2]

According to one survivor of sexual assault:

A trigger warning doesn’t necessarily stop me from engaging with content, but it does help me prepare for what I might endure. In my experience, though, it’s almost impossible for me to predict what will trigger a panic attack in me. That doesn’t mean I think trigger warnings are useless; I understand the purpose they’re meant to serve, even though they don’t always work.[3]

Another strategy professors utilize is giving students simple written notice on the top of their syllabi and before certain reading assignments,[4] such as: 

We are discussing sexual assault tomorrow; this is especially difficult material, and, statistically speaking, there are some few sexual assault survivors in this class. I want to remind you that mental health services are available, and that you can come to office hours if you have thoughts about the material that you were not comfortable sharing in class.[5]

If professors opt to give trigger warnings on their syllabi rather than in class, they should be clear about what material on the syllabus they think may be a common trigger.[6]

Thus, advanced descriptions of course content on violence or trauma can be in the form of a content alert or a preparatory overview, so long as the professor acknowledges the potential impact of the material and signals that they do not think resulting harms are trivial.[7] Warnings then allow students who suffer from anxiety or PTSD to mentally prepare to engage with the material in class.

As one professor writes, with a trigger warning, students “begin to engage with an aspect of the material, they give signals about how they’ll be affected, they evaluate the warning in relation to the language and subject matter of the text.”[8] Another professor adds, “[N]ot giving students a heads-up risks a return to the status quo of intellectualizing violence and trauma as something that happens only outside the classroom.”[9]

Many professors view trigger warnings as an issue of accessibility, or one of the methods for engaging multiple learning styles. Accessibility deals with everything from the subject matter to the books, format, and conversation.[10] Professor Eileen Zurbriggen, who has studied vicarious trauma in the undergraduate classroom, states:

 Most trauma survivors have a lot of resilience. Providing information to students always makes the class a better experience and prepares them to dive into the material in a way that promotes learning.[11]

Even students who do not suffer from anxiety or PTSD benefit from a more respectful approach to difficult topics, since the act of giving warning or other accommodation becomes a teachable moment; all students will need to navigate such conversations in a sensitive and professional way throughout their careers as society becomes increasingly open about mental health.[12]

 

[1] Kathleen Smith, Warning: This course may cause emotional distress, American Psychological Association, Vol. 45, No. 7. (Jul./Aug. 2014).

[2] Id.

[3] Maddy Myers, Saying Trigger Warnings “Coddle the Mind” Completely Misses the Point, The Mary Sue, (Aug. 11, 2015), http://www.themarysue.com/trigger-warnings-arent-coddling/.

[4] Miri Mogilevsky, What’s Behind the Backlash Against “Over-Sensitivity” on the Internet?, The Daily Dot, (May 18, 2015), http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/columbia-greek-myths-trigger-warnings-backlash/.

[5] I wrote this example as an amalgamation of the particularly good warnings I found.

[6] Alice Rutkowski, Trigger Warnings in College Classes, The New York Times, (Sep. 28, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/28/opinion/trigger-warnings-in-college-classes.html.

[7] Kate Manne, Why I Use Trigger Warnings, The New York Times, (Sep. 19, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html.

[8] Aaron R. Hanlon, My Students Need Trigger Warnings—and Professors Do, Too, New Republic, (May 17, 2015), https://newrepublic.com/article/121820/my-students-need-trigger-warnings-and-professors-do-too (“A trigger warning doesn’t have to be an act of censorship or a straightjacketing of interpretation; it can be a starting point for a ranging discussion that ultimately challenges students’ points of view.”).

[9] Julie A. Winterich, Trigger or Not, Warnings Matter, Inside Higher Education, (Oct. 9, 2015), https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/10/09/middle-ground-trigger-warnings-essay.

[10] Theri A. Pickens, Teaching an Accessible Classroom, (Dec. 22, 2013), http://www.tpickens.org/2013/12/22/teaching-an-accessible-classroom/.

[11] Kathleen Smith, Warning: This course may cause emotional distress, American Psychological Association, Vol. 45, No. 7. (Jul./Aug. 2014).

[12] See generally William M. Sullivan, Education Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law (2007).