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What the University of Chicago Should Know Before It Belittles Trigger Warnings


A letter sent by the University of Chicago to the Freshman Class of 2020 has caused controversy over stating that the school “[does] not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘intellectual safe spaces’” because of their “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”

So, what are trigger warnings and safe spaces and why are they so important?

Trigger warnings are typically a concise notification before a written piece, video, speech, etc. stating that the content includes topics that could cause one mental harm. Some of the most common trigger topics are sexual assault, suicide, racism, homophobia and other topics that could trigger symptoms like panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks.

These are not the same as when someone gets “triggered” by a person who has an opposing view (note to everyone: that’s not the correct usage of that term). These content warnings don’t alter the content that comes after the warning and people still have other outlets to release material that is potentially triggering. They’re similar to the ratings and warnings given for television shows and movies. Trigger/content warnings have become more popular over the years, especially on the internet, and some media outlets have used them to warn their audience.

Safe spaces are environments where people can be free from situations that trigger mental harm. People can be triggered by situations outside the classroom, so safe spaces and other mental health resources are vital. Examples of safe spaces are support groups, clubs for members of minority groups, and other supportive environments. In the media, many critics equate the term with political or ideological groups that refuse to listen to dissenting opinions, but just like trigger warnings, safe spaces don’t censor.

Some critics of both of these claim that students should be exposed to the “Real World,” but
trigger warnings and safe spaces exist outside of college campuses and exposure therapy should be left to therapists who are educated on evidence-based techniques and appropriate time frames. Professors already have a lot on their plate and no one expects them to also be their students’ therapists, so these simple practices can make professors’ jobs easier.

Why is the University of Chicago’s letter harmful to students?

The University of Chicago claims in their letter that the school “welcomes people of all backgrounds,” but the belittling of trigger warnings and safe spaces alienates those whose mental health would benefit from these practices. This letter included some lofty assumptions. The author assumed that a) trigger warnings and safe spaces only exist to censor and people want them for that purpose only, and b) students can easily access appropriate mental health support on campus or elsewhere. These assumptions are dangerous and stigmatizing.

College is supposed to be the time where you are exposed to people from different backgrounds who have different views, a point with which the University of Chicago agrees. However, this letter shows an ignorant perspective regarding mental health issues and the mental health of students. There’s a difference between challenging students academically and challenging their ability to cope with situations that endanger their mental health, especially on campuses where counseling centers already face a growing number of students who need its services.

About one out of every five Americans live with mental illness (including me), but this number doesn’t include those yet to be seen and diagnosed. According to Emory University, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds. About one in every 10 college students has planned the means in which they would die by suicide and over 1,000 suicides take place on college campuses each year.

The positions schools take regarding how they tackle mental health issues can influence their success and the success of students. Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University and co-author of “College and the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It,” explained that “studies show that greater investment in mental health services leads to higher retention and graduation rates.”

Of course schools can’t please everyone, nor should they be expected to know every single possible trigger, but they should be respectful of students’ mental health. It’s one way we can make society more understanding and less stigmatizing towards mental health issues.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Lead image: The University of Chicago