Are Trigger Warnings Contributing to Our Academic Demise?

I got into an interesting debate about trigger warnings last week with some of my colleagues. As a result, I was introduced to this very interesting Atlantic article.

The article explains what trigger warnings are and purports that they are creating “thinner-skinned” undergraduate academic students and therefore hampering the freedom of speech (in the name of academia) on college campuses.

From: http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/hazards-ahead-problem-trigger-warnings-according-research-81946
From: http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/hazards-ahead-problem-trigger-warnings-according-research-81946

Unfortunately, this article creates a convolution with trigger warnings and something else entirely, let’s call it political correctness. Regarding the former, trigger warnings are necessary when running simulations or having difficult discussions – if you’re discussing genocide and a student has had the terrible misfortune of experiencing one – why wouldn’t you prompt your discussions? Most of our colleges are now laden with returning veterans, eager to get their undergraduate and graduate degrees, why wouldn’t we allot them the respect of at least prefacing discussions regarding the difficult, incomprehensible things they witnessed on a day to day basis while on the battlefield with a simple – “we’re going to be discussing some difficult concepts and issues regarding war and war time today.” A trigger warning does not have to be directed or single anyone out in any way, it’s meant as a courtesy to people and their pasts.

“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

The article makes an interesting point by mentioning that trigger warnings for things that shouldn’t be classified as trigger warnings, noting that these are causing thin-skinned students, unable to hear or have a difficult discussion about very real subject matters. Hasn’t our society matured enough? Are we not self-aware enough to have the ability to recognize that our words have very real meanings and impacts on others? When did having “a real conversation” in academia mean that we throw caution to the wind and say what we want however we want to say it? How can you even begin to have a real discussion about race without recognizing who you are, how you were raised, and what you look like impacts the way in which you are able to discuss these issues that are very real and very sensitive for others?

“According to the basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear most is misguided.”

…but neither is shoving it in their face all the time. A person with an anxiety disorder does not need repeated contact with what causes their anxiety to get over it. That process, which I find inadvisable, may work for some, but for others, it may cause a very quick and very dark downward spiral.

“We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.”

Why isn’t the fact that we are more open regarding our discussion of mental health and mental illnesses than ten, twenty, thirty years ago? It seems that the rise in mental illnesses could similarly be due to the fact that more people are coming forward with having these issues. More people recognize that the recurring slump they are in could be due to depression or their panicky demeanor could be the surface of something deeper. We think people were hardier in the past – but it is a very dangerous to mistake hardiness for absolute avoidance.

This article – like any good piece of journalism – should be informative, make you nod, and make you scream all at once. I learned a great deal from this piece, but have a number of issues with some of its evidence and conclusions, as well.