At the beginning of this academic term, the University of Chicago announced a new policy prohibiting the use of trigger warnings and refusing to condone “safe spaces” on campus. This decision was reached in order to commit to the university’s dedication to free speech.
The Dean of Students, John Ellison, sent a letter on the first day of school, alerting students to UChicago’s official stance on this topic. In response, some people (ironically) argued that his words were a tad harsh and overbearing for the earliest stage of the academic year.
As a college student, a journalist, an advocate for free speech, and someone who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder, I found the University of Chicago's announcement fascinating and personal.
It may seem counterintuitive, but I agree that eliminating trigger warnings on campus would ultimately benefit students — especially those struggling with mental health. Challenging ourselves with uncomfortable material means we're thinking, learning, and developing, and it is our responsibility as human beings and students to embrace our academic role as critical thinkers. But discussing the elimination of trigger warnings and safe spaces must be only one phase of a more systemic examination of how to help students who have suffered from trauma or who struggle with mental health — and not the first or only step.
I realize some topics can be very difficult for some students to handle, but I learned the hard way that I could only effectively combat my anxiety by facing it head-on. All through high school, I informed my teachers of my triggers, like violence, blood, and tragedy. I don't believe that being sensitive to those things made me weak or less intelligent, as those who advocate for a total elimination of trigger warnings would argue. But after spending the majority of my high school years attempting to ignore all the bad stuff and combat the problem with small doses of Prozac, I was still trapped in a lingering discomfort.
Instead of just accepting that those things would always trigger me, however, I made it my personal mission to find ways to handle them. I went out of my way to speak with educators and counselors about my issues and how to work through them. And, most important, I entered cognitive and exposure therapy.
I had already been in family counseling earlier in my life, when I was dealing with my parents’ divorce and symptoms of depression, but this therapy was different. The new psychologist was located in my pediatrician’s office, so I was always assessed from a more scientific and medical standpoint than from an emotional point of view. There was plenty of talking, but at every session I also had to approach "exposures." For example, when I was anxious about driving, I had to get in my mom’s car in the parking lot of the doctor’s office. When I began to work on my fear of blood, I had to watch a nurse prick her own finger.
These things still occasionally make me writhe in my skin, but more often than not, I use the coping strategies I have worked so hard to develop. Between breathing exercises, continuous exposures, and action plans in situations that might cause me anxiety, I feel much more confident and healthy heading into my adult years.
My decision to pursue this treatment, however, is hardly the norm in a climate in which being "sensitive" is scrutinized and even demonized. What’s more, people with mental illnesses or who have experienced trauma cannot use a political science classroom as their very first attempt at such immersion therapy. Students who advocate for trigger warnings are right that they should be able to live and learn comfortably on their campuses. But students should also have room to blossom and grow. I am certainly guilty of avoiding my fears like a kid sliding their broccoli farther away on the dinner table, but I know that behavior will hardly benefit me in the long run. Which is why it cannot be excused or accepted in college — the very place we're meant to begin a lifelong journey of challenging ourselves.
Fear is a magnet: The more we try to push it away, the more attracted to us it becomes. The solution is vulnerability. Peeling away our routines, so velcroed to our hearts, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones: This is the most challenging work of growing up. It is also the most important undertaking of our lives.
And yet, despite all this, the solution is not to create a blanket-coverage policy, as UChicago has done. Applying the same requirements to everyone, including victims of abuse, individuals with severe mental illnesses, and those who have not personally experienced trauma, is confusing and unfair. While on the surface, doing so may seem kindly inclusive, it in fact unreasonably holds those who are already trying so hard to a perhaps unattainable standard.
A better solution requires deeper change than merely employing superficial fixes like trigger warnings or college-wide policies, and must instead include further discussion and information on mental illness and trauma. Colleges, universities, and high schools should worry less about trigger warnings themselves and more about making their entire campuses safe, forgiving, and trusting environments in which students feel comfortable confronting difficult topics and sharing their experiences. Although UChicago is anti–safe spaces, the environments I envision are more systemic, in that every participant in the learning community has more knowledge on the topic of mental illness and can employ a more profound use of empathy.
We must also recognize that this ultimately points to the bigger issue of abuse and mental health on campuses. Mental illness is on the rise: It's only logical to have counseling and therapy professionals around to aid students who are experiencing this, as well as the rampant issue of sexual assault on college campuses around the country. Universities must first address how to help students who have been victims of abuse or who are struggling with mental illness through access to resources, programs, and organizations before they target the after-effects of these experiences in the classroom.
I feel lucky to attend the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which offers a wide array of counseling services for students, making my educational environment a warm, welcoming, and safe place in which I and the other students can grow emotionally, cognitively, and dynamically. Our college is the only one in the state to have implemented a student-run chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which has already provided me with many resources and a kind support system, just three weeks into my freshman year. I feel comfortable in the knowledge that when I go to class, I can talk about the way things in my life affect me and trust that my thoughts will be received with respect, and that I am also learning how to listen to others with that same respect.
I believe in a happy medium. While free speech and in-depth, fearless discussions should absolutely take place in the classroom, we can’t just ignore the mental illness and emotional distress brewing among students, which is what has inspired the call for trigger warnings in the first place. I know that universities are capable of both advocating for free speech and acknowledging that their students may need help when dealing with trauma or mental illness. In fact, this is exactly what should be happening, regardless of any debate about trigger warnings. Perhaps if we spoke more freely about mental health and made addressing it the real issue here, we'd find that most every student wants the opportunity to engage, challenge themselves, and grow — so long as they have a fair and supportive environment in which to do so.
As a media communications major, I recently learned something that has stuck with me. In one of my classes, the students were asked to define the term "rhetoric," which we considered a way of speaking well and persuasively in discussion. My professor, however, defined it as "the art of moving the soul through discourse."
Between advocating for both free speech and improved mental health for all, we can all achieve just that.
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