Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Warning: This lecture might trigger PTSD!

"This lecture is triggering my PTSD, professor. May we talk about Unicorns and Butterflies instead?"

According to an article in The Daily Nexus, the University of California Santa Barbara’s student newspaper, in late February the student Senate “passed a resolution to begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi at UCSB.” The resolution would “require professors who present content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to warn the students ahead of time and refrain from docking points from those who opt out of attending class that day.”
UC Santa Barbara is part of a growing trend. As Jenny Jarvie reported recently in The New Republic, “many students are demanding trigger warnings on class content” and “many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class.”
Some cutting-edge colleges see no good reason to limit the use of trigger warnings to just PTSD, which on many campuses is understood to cover “survivors”—to use the technical term favored by professional educators—of sexual violence.
At Oberlin College, for example, the Office of Equity Concerns has published online a statement advising professors to provide trigger warnings not only concerning materials that could stimulate traumatic memories of sexual violence but also regarding those that have the potential to evoke traumatic feelings relating to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [according to Queers United, this is “the belief and treatment of transgender and/or transsexual people as inferior to cissexual (non-trans) people”], ableism [discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities], and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Had to check my calendar after reading this to make sure it wasn't an April Fool's gag. Listen, as a clinician, I have to say, if you can't handle a college classroom without suffering debilitating exacerbation of your PTSD symptoms, maybe you need to take a year off and go into full-time treatment. In fact, this sounds an awful lot like "colluding with the avoidance" -- the tacit agreement that patients and doctors sometimes enter into in order to avoid at all costs talking about the traumatic events. You are never going to recover from your PTSD if you assiduously avoid all reminders ("triggers") of the traumatic event.

Paul Meehl talks about the "spun-glass" theory of mind that many modern folks hold, that people are as fragile as spun glass and that if they hear or see something disturbing, they might break. People are a heck of a lot more resilient than that. But this UCSB resolution isn't about debilitating exacerbation of PTSD -- it's about freedom from discomfort. As the full article by Peter Berkowitz suggests, it's about not having to be exposed to anything that might shake you up a bit. If that is your goal, I say again, please withdraw from college, because the entire purpose of education is to shake you up.

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