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Head to head: Trigger warnings are essential for students facing mental illness

By Paige Stoffregen, September 7 2016 —

The increasingly prevalent debate over content warnings — particularly in an academic setting — raises concerns about some of the ways in which the needs of people dealing with trauma or invisible disabilities can be dismissed.

It is quite common to see institutions such as universities and college campuses strive to ensure accessibility for visibly disabled students, so it shocks me that requests for accommodations for less visibly disabled students, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety, are met with such contention and even refusal.

If content warnings for students with conditions such as epilepsy are common and acceptable, then a content warning for someone who has experienced trauma shouldn’t be unfeasible.

Content warnings are often critiqued as blockades or censors of academic freedom and exploration. But this is hardly the case,  when all a content warning entails is a string of words at the top of a lecture slide, syllabus or paper.

At no point are the individuals requesting these warnings asking that sensitive subjects exit campus discussions. The intent of content warnings is to allow any person who may be triggered by the topic the appropriate time and space to address their relationship with the impending subject.

This may mean being able to prepare for and control their response to the trigger or removing themselves from the situation in order to address their mental health concerns.

It never means that other individuals will be less able to delve into the study of the subject.

Another common misconception is that including content warnings encourages an overly sensitive population, unwilling to hear opinions that exist outside their worldview, or that if people are so easily triggered by the content in an academic setting, they won’t be able to function in the “real world”.

This sentiment, while not only dismissive of people with trauma-related disorders, disregards the fact that these individuals already have to deal with the reality of living with their disorders every day. This also comes close to the insinuation that those with mental illnesses or other invisible disorders cannot ensure their own mental health in the academic sphere as it currently exists, then they are simply unfit to pursue higher learning.

If anything, we should strive to create a community that attempts to help those dealing with mental disorders, rather than contributing to the perpetuation of dismissal regarding these serious issues in academic settings.

It isn’t outlandish to provide those with such disorders as PTSD and anxiety a brief acknowledgment of the discussion of sensitive and potentially triggering topics. Weighing the inconvenience of including a short content warning with a large audience against a potential panic attack or dissociative episode creates a clearer idea that, maybe, we should reassess the way we think about mental illness in the context of academic institutions.


This article is part of a head to head. Click here to read the other side of the argument.

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