Students at the El Camino College's Compton Center Library. In recent years trigger warnings for students have been discussed heavily. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion: Trigger warnings may not be effective

In today’s society, addressing a person’s trauma has become a common concern. One of the more widely recognized solutions to handle the effects of trauma is providing trigger warnings, which are defined by the Association for Psychological Science as “alerts that an upcoming program or text may contain unsettling content.” Trigger warnings are often applied…
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Weber Lai

March 23, 2022

In today’s society, addressing a person’s trauma has become a common concern. One of the more widely recognized solutions to handle the effects of trauma is providing trigger warnings, which are defined by the Association for Psychological Science as “alerts that an upcoming program or text may contain unsettling content.”

Trigger warnings are often applied to the college environment in consideration of the students. Professors may give a brief statement that the learning material may not be suitable for some audiences. Trigger warnings are beneficial in the short-term; however, they are an imperfect solution in providing significant long-term benefits, especially for many people who suffer from PTSD.

Generally, when people consider the use of trigger warnings, they often are concerned for individuals who may have PTSD. According to Mayo Clinic, PTSD “is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.”

In PTSD, those afflicted may have triggers that cause the person to re-experience their trauma. People who give trigger warnings aim to help prevent students from encountering distressing events too suddenly, which can harm their mental state and impair their ability to learn. As a result, trigger warnings may provide a safer learning environment for all individuals.

Trigger warnings may also be beneficial to the student’s development. In her New York Times opinion article, the director of education and co-founder of End Rape On Campus, Sofie Karasek, presents a Harvard student named Alyssa Leader who was sexually assaulted. Professor Kimberly Theidon warned the class about the discussion of sexual violence and provided an option “to request help should any distress interfere with coursework.” Leader took up the offer, and Karasek claims “[Leader] said the class was one of her most fulfilling intellectual experiences at Harvard.”

Trigger warnings have helped encourage students afflicted with trauma to persevere in education. Although Leader’s experience lacks widely applicable empirical evidence and only provides one account of the benefits of trigger warnings, the Leader case does show that trigger warnings are useful to some individuals.

In contrast to popular belief, the director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University Richard J. McNally disagrees. He explained that trigger warnings are counter therapeutic. Trigger warnings may encourage some individuals with PTSD to avoid reminders of the trauma.

It can be extrapolated that this tendency to avoid reminders of trauma suggests that utilizing trigger warnings can lead to avoiding severe reactions, and those with PTSD may be less likely to seek professional help if they can engage in this avoidance behavior explained by McNally. McNally’s point highlights the importance of professional help for long-term mental health instead of avoidance behavior encouraged by trigger warnings. 

Trigger warnings may encourage some students with PTSD to avoid exposing themselves to difficult topics, thus preventing their PTSD from being resolved. 

McNally’s argument that trigger warnings are not helpful suggests that students should engage with uncomfortable material and experience the full spectrum of the content and learning. Any triggers that cause severe responses are indicators that students need professional help to improve their happiness and health.

Similarly, it is often difficult to predict environmental triggers for PTSD, as triggers can literally be anything. According to WebMD, triggers are not limited to the event itself and can include items, places, or sensory experiences involved in the trauma. In other words, trigger warnings may not sufficiently help prevent distress for many individuals with PTSD because even a very mundane sight or sound can trigger a severe response.

Trigger warnings can be useful in general without the goal of shielding those suffering from PTSD. For instance, professors can use trigger warnings to create a more comfortable learning environment, giving students a chance to prepare for uncomfortable content about to be presented. The trigger warnings can allow students to understand what to expect from their chosen course. Providing these trigger warnings may allow students to prepare mentally for the upcoming topic and inspire more discussion rather than creating an awkward and uncomfortable learning environment.

However, the trigger warning can act as a nocebo effect, where negative outcomes can result from negative beliefs. Trigger warnings may make students have concerns that the material will be distressing and make a person’s experience in the classroom seem worse than it is. Researchers from Harvard explain that trigger warnings can make one more aware and vulnerable of potentially distressing material and increase anxiety upon reading passages only if participants believe words can cause harm.

Trigger warnings contain multiple complex variables wrapped in a simplistic concept. Its applications to the educational environment and its benefits depend on the student and instructor as well as how it is applied. Trigger warnings have the power to empower or impede individuals, or fruitlessly provide nothing at all.

Ultimately, trigger warnings are an excellent short-term solution but can not be relied on to improve the mental health of students.

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