By Dr. Elaine Ducharme

I recently read an article in a professional journal, the November/December edition of Psychotherapy Networker entitled: Trigger Warnings: Compassion or Coddling. The basic premise is that some material in college courses appears to be triggering negative reactions in students. Some have proposed that classroom materials be posted with warnings that exposure to some content in the course could generate a high level of distress. And more Colleges and Universities than I personally would care to believe are doing just that. For example: in 2014 students at Rutgers University demanded in The Daily Targum that the Great Gatsby include a trigger warning for scenes depicting “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence”. At schools like Oberlin and the University of New York, there have been instances of students being allowed to opt out of watching films or reading novels and complete a different assignment instead.

What are we doing? Colleges used to be the place you went to learn about new ideas. It was an opportunity to extend oneself into different arena’s and begin to make independent choices. How can one possibly do any of this if we shelter our students from ideas they don’t like? We already have a nation filled with people experiencing more anxiety and having fewer coping skills. Use of medications for anxiety and depression have soared at our Universities. At Boston University, Behavioral Medicine clinicians report that the number of students in crisis coming in for help has increased sharply—from 647 in the 2014–2015 academic year to 906 last year. These statistics are quite similar to those at many of our Universities.

College professors are not meant to be therapists. Most of you know that I have specialized in the treatment of trauma and abuse for over 30 years. I am hopefully quite sensitive to trauma triggers. But helping people avoid what may be different or even uncomfortable is not helping anyone. Students need to learn to cope with the world. If we teach our young adults that it is OK to avoid the uncomfortable or distasteful, we are setting them up for a life of failure, inability to listen to opposing ideas, discuss them and maybe even compromise. This will have a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. Certainly, if a student is having trouble coping with material they can and should speak to the professor. But, it is not the professor’s job to change the course. The professor can refer the student to therapy where he or she can learn how to deal with these kinds of situations. Ultimately, it is the college student’s responsibility to
learn how to cope with life. If a teacher had to change the curriculum each time a student felt triggered by the material it would become an impossible task. I, personally, believe it would undercut the entire idea of higher learning. We certainly don’t have to agree with everything we see or hear. But we certainly need to be able to listen to and tolerate new, different and even uncomfortable ideas

Therapy can help people understand that avoiding the uncomfortable only increases the anxiety. Psychologists and other mental health professionals help clients develop self soothing skills to use when they are upset or triggered by an event. Then we utilize a form of exposure therapy, either real or virtual to help someone control their anxious response. It is actually fairly easy to do for a single fear, such as fear of flying. With trauma triggers, the process certainly is longer. But if someone can’t deal with the class material they probably should not be taking that class until they can figure out how to manage their responses.

We are in an era of everyone must feel good, get a trophy and not be upset. We want to surround ourselves only with those having similar views. We are losing our ability to really listen to each other. As a psychologist, I think we are treading in very dangerous waters. What do you think?


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