On 14 February 2017 a gunman in Parkland, Florida killed 17 students and injured 17 others with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle. Following the shooting, many students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were diagnosed with PTSD, and two students died by suicide as a result.
Just a few months later, the Parkland seniors who graduated and chose to attend the University of Central Florida were shown an active shooter drill video during their orientation without any content warning. At that time I was a UCF junior journalism major who had reported on several March for Our Lives stories before, which is an organisation created by Parkland students to strengthen gun control laws. I reached out to some of them and they told me how distraught their friends were.
This instance wasn’t an issue of “safe spaces” or “snowflakes.” These students had survived a mass shooting, were formally diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder because of it, and now sat in a crowded room watching a reenactment of that horror all over again.
No one would show the survivor of a mass shooting an active shooter video. No one would show a veteran videos of war. No one would show a rape survivor a detailed video on sexual assault.
So why don’t we allot the same ethical consideration to all instances of trauma and mental health in the classroom?
Unlike the stereotype, trigger warnings or content warnings are not to prevent young people from seeing things they may find offensive. Sorry boomers, but university students are not afraid of having our “delicate sensibilities” hurt. Trigger warnings are not something we find trendy or “politically correct.” In fact, trigger warnings are there to protect those with legitimate trauma from relapsing or having serious anxiety attacks.
There are many reasons a lecturer may decide to talk on topics such as mental health or sexual assault. And why shouldn’t they? Society should not shy away from educating others or discussing hard topics. However, given the likelihood that someone in the audience may have a legitimate disorder or have experienced significant trauma, warning them of sensitive content and allowing them the freedom to leave can be the difference between a student staying in the class and causing major harm to their healing.
One in 10 people living in the UK will experience partial or full symptoms of an eating disorder, according to a study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Will going into detail about calorie deficits and fasting truly be beneficial to their mental health in a wellness class?
What benefit is there to show violence without warning to any student who is a veteran or survivor of abuse who has PTSD? If you would not call them a snowflake for their bravery in overcoming what they have experienced, you should not call them weak for healing in their own time without unwarranted and often violent distractions.
There is also science behind trigger warnings. According to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, trigger warnings can prompt people to better regulate their emotions and being able to anticipate a response can make you more proactive in regulating your stress.
My challenge for readers is this: Why do we encourage the healing of others, but not the actual process? If being advised that certain content within a lecture may deal with topics upsetting to survivors of traumatic experiences, I say taking 30 seconds to explain so makes all the difference.