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Trigger Warning and Mental Health Protection

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trigger warningA “trigger warning,” as its come to be known, is an advance warning to readers or viewers that they may find proceeding material distressing or disturbing. The intention is to protect those who may be sensitive to distressing situations – those with addictions, mental health disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, etc. – from experiencing harmful material that might trigger painful memories, episodic breakdowns, or even relapse.

The University of Chicago recently made news when it published an open letter to incoming students saying it did not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings.’” The letter suggested that these kinds of warnings suppressed free speech and prohibited open dialogue.

Trigger Warning

The University of Chicago’s letter

In its letter, the University of Chicago likened trigger warnings to coddling, suggesting that they are a way for sensitive individuals to avoid challenging their own perspectives.   

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” the University wrote.

People are countering that argument, though.

One student’s story

One student shared a particularly personal story about how a trigger warning could have prevented her from going to a mental hospital.

In a series of tweets on Twitter, Patricia Rodriguez explained that one of her professors showed a documentary of people committing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Unbeknownst to the professor, Ms. Rodriguez was suffering from suicidal thoughts at the time.

She left the class in hysterics, and before she left she told her professor that she was suicidal. She went home to try to sleep it off and was awoken by police who took her to a mental hospital where she was forced to be admitted for the night.

“Had he put the trigger warning I [could’ve prepped] mentally for it. Gotten in contact with my therapist before hand,” she tweeted. “Its for folks with PTSD, Suicidality, Epilepsy, Addiction etc. find a way to make their lives easier and recover. NOT for folks to avoid tough arguments or different worldviews. That is a myth.”

She added that the professor’s original position was that trigger warnings were unnecessary because “the real world” doesn’t have them; now, says Rodriguez, the professor regrets that position and uses them.

In an editorial, the Huffington Post echoed the student’s argument, calling trigger warnings “potentially lifesaving.”

In the article, HuffPo cited Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor and research director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, who told the American Psychological Association in 2014 that regardless of whether trigger warnings are required, “It is ethically responsible to share with students your course content.”

Being aware of others and getting help when it’s needed

While free speech and unlimited expression are pillars of American culture, it is critical for us to remember that there are those among us who can fall into dangerous relapses or nervous breakdowns triggered by disturbing material. Being considerate of others is not a matter of “political correctness,” or “coddling.” It’s simply about being a kind, thoughtful human being.

If you are suffering from addiction or alcoholism, we can talk to you about your options. Our compassionate staff promises a judge-free, open dialogue that can you help you understand where to go from here. The Watershed can help. Call today: 1-800-861-1768.

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