Software Developer, Chemist

Trigger Warnings Don't Hurt Mental Health or Free Speech (So Shut Up)

A vector image icon depicting the pain of a trigger. The forehead bares a focal point of pain, while arrows point to the externality of the head.

But if Academics don't engage in a non-reactionary way to mental health on campus, we might be.

(Trigger warning, contains mentions of sexual assault in a campus context)

Anglo-American Academia seems to be undergoing something of a moral panic. The recent but highly localised climax of this is that Chicago University has decided to issue a statement saying that they will not support “So called “trigger warnings””. This has precipitated once more in my social media feeds a long discussion about the place that such devices have as a part of campus life, if any. Almost without exception, the discussion comes back to This article in the Atlantic, dubiously entitled “How trigger warnings are hurting mental health on campus”, though tellingly the title of the article once you actually get to the page is something completely different and decidedly more generalised.

I have many criticisms of the article. The most general are that it does a poor job citing sources and studies, it treats anecdotes as one would data (the plural of anecdote continues not to be data). In doing so it misses the irony of using emotional logic in an article which admonishes young persons for allegedly doing the same. In particular, the title that appears on social media feeds offers a clear certainty and yet all of the paragraphs which actually pertain to the title begin with the word ‘may’ and do not cite any clinical study. Incidentally, the psychology author on the piece is a social psychologist and not a clinical psychiatrist — and some of the fallacies in the article point to their lack of experience with the latter.

My biggest criticism of the article however, is that it falsely conflates several aspects of mental health into one block. Each aspect is pockmarked with logical fallacies and factual errors, but attacking the whole voluminous article at once only adds confusion to the mixture. As such, I feel the need to state explicity what I am and am not going to do in this piece.

I will be speaking specifically about trigger warnings, I will not be drawn into the following:

  • Conflating trigger warnings, safe spaces and migroaggressions into one phenomenon.
  • Falsely combining international academia into one entity.
  • A discussion on no-platforming.
  • A discussion about offense and being offended.
  • A discussion about harassment.
  • Be drawn into discussing examples where the label ‘Trigger Warning’ is improperly applied.

That being said, the first and last of those things warrant a little more unpacking. Not least because the first item is in fact the largest logical fallacy of the Atlantic article – recency.

Trigger warnings are not a new phenomenon. They might be a new label. This is even illustrated by the article itself. However, the warnings themselves actually go back to WWI; another topic which the Article touches on. In spite of containing these pieces of information, the Article insists that trigger warnings themselves are a new development which comes from American University campuses. This is demonstrably false; trigger warnings have long been associated with events which might unexpectedly contain loud flashes and/or explosions. The first place where I encountered a trigger warning was at the Royal Tournament when I was aged 9ish. Incidentally, this is also the first place I heard the term trigger in relation to such a statement, as when I asked I was informed that people with PTSD can be triggered by such events.

Before anybody gets on tweeting at me about the fact that I'm using anecdotes: I'm using anecdotes to illustrate already demonstrated facts, not as evidence for those facts.

By-the-by Trigger warnings do not only exist for psychological issues. Consider that video games for as long as I can remember have always included a label warning against triggering epilepsy. This is another somewhat tangental assumption about trigger warnings.

The temptation here is to also bring in examples like movie and video game rating labels. One could also be tempted to draw in statements from News shows. “The following contains scenes which the viewer may find disturbing” could be considered a trigger warning. While it is true that these labels do somewhat fill that role, they also make statements about content which are not necessarily triggers. They might be disturbing but that is quite different to re-experiencing an emotionally distressing past event. We are a long way from the Atlantic's “strong emotional response”. This rather illustrates my comment about improper use of the term, which is a problem on all sides of the argument. Handily, those millenials we are all so worried about have a shorthand term for those things which are uncomfortable but are not triggering – squicks. It's amazing what you can learn from engaging with a culture rather than admonishing it.

One point of discussion which can be taken seriously from the article is that of “fortune telling” with mental health, and specifically trigger warnings. Once again, we see that the examples cited within the article itself undo it's own logic. The Atlantic Article cites this piece in the New Yorker. In that piece, the Professor of Harvard Law School details her difficulties with teaching rape law in the current political environment. In particular, they mention one episode in which a student asked her not to use the word ‘violate’, illustrating her point with the example of “Does this conduct violate the law?” (If only there were some other common parlance for breaking the law...). Triggers can be exceptionally specific, and this would be a case in point. No one is expecting Law Professors generally to avoid the word ‘violate’, but the student in question did ask for a specific consideration in this one instance. This is not a fortune telling issue, but a real and present experience. This consideration, it seems, was insensitively denied, and then used in a poor attempt at mockery in a public forum. This is offensive in the narrowest definition of the word (it is used to attack, an offense), but I will leave that discussion for another venue.

Although triggers can be extremely specific, there are some which are appallingly common. Rape is the obvious example, since the Atlantic article references it multiple times. It is not fortune telling, but good statistics, to include trigger warnings about rape in content where one might not obviously expect it to occur, for instance if your course title does not include words such as sexual assault. Such a title would serve as it's own trigger warning, and if it is a compulsory course, then it should be a part of the degree programme outline given to students before they enroll at the university. This is all a trigger warning is, and the only purpose which it is intended to serve – to provide information and clarity.

In this sense, contrary to the statements in the Atlantic article, Trigger Warnings are not antithetical to exposure therapy. Indeed, they can be an assistive component thereof. Exposure therapy depends on controlled, rather than uncontrolled exposures. Certainly this was my experience undergoing CBT where I experienced a life event that required me to undergo therapy. At the time I worked at a cinema, and so the advice of my therapist at the time was to ask a trusted colleague to give me a heads up if they felt that a film would contain content that would trigger me, until the exposure therapy had made things more manageable. I was then able to use the trigger warnings as a part of my controlled exposures by deliberately watching films for which I had forewarning. So it is that for from being antithetical, trigger warnings and exposure therapy go hand in hand.

It should be noted that I was unable to find any evidence regarding the exposure of persons with triggers to uncontrolled stressors, and that such exposures do not form a part of any treatment regimen recommended by a series of bodies reviewed by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. I am forced to conclude that suggesting that uncontrolled exposures are a necessary part of exposure therapy other than as a final acid test is disingenuous and potentially dangerous.

If we find that so many students are being triggered by such subjects to the point that it is becoming hard to teach, it might be an idea to do something about the fact that so many women are experiencing sexual assault while on campus. That would also help solve the problem.

You will note that this is an entirely separate issue from not making such subjects a compulsory component of degree programmes. That being said, I think there is a place for such ongoing reviews of the appropriateness of course content, and this goes for all subjects and for a variety of reasons. If we are not willing to have those conversations, perhaps we should re-evaluate exactly who and what are preventing academic free thinking and free speech on campus.

The aspect of free speech on campus, in itself, belies an assumption about what Universities are for. My rather tongue-in-cheek response to the recommendations about what American Universities and Colleges should do, as prescribed by the Atlantic article is that private institutions should do whatever they deem to be most profitable, since that is a motivating factor for many such institutions. Whilst that is a somewhat snide statement, the underpinning ethic holds true. Colleges and Universities should do whatever they feel is in their best interests measured by whatever standards they hold. In Britain and America this will vary from institution to institution. I am frankly amazed how few hold academic freedom as one of their key principles.

This brings us to the University of Chicago. This institution has declared that it is actively discouraging trigger warnings, as a warning to all prospective students. In so doing, they have illustrated the fact that they clearly do not know what they are talking about. They have sidestepped issuing trigger warnings which warn persons about content which might trigger them, by issuing a warning about a regulation that might make students uncomfortable. It is the first University to slide down the slippery slope of issuing squick warnings, and there is great irony in the way they wound up in that situation.

In the wider context, I have seen greater numbers of my academic colleagues, peers, and ostensible superiors admonish and mock the idea of trigger warnings, and refuse to take the notion seriously. Ultimately the aim in such actions is to silence the conversation through methods which are entirely antithetical to the notion of a true academic discussion; that is, to prevent genuine academic freedom on campus, and is ultimately bad for mental health of students.