Have American colleges turned into nursery homes for adults now, indulging students’ every whim and sheltering them from the harsh, frost-bitten reality? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt vehemently answer “yes” in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an article published in the most recent The Atlantic. Lukianoff and Haidt claim that American students demand protection from words and ideas they find offensive, and that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” damage mental health more than actual exposure to graphic or offensive material. However, the authors focus on on a few isolated and extreme examples of trigger warning misuse. In reality, articles denouncing the concept of trigger warnings exceed the number actually used on most college campuses.
Widespread sexual assault, physical violence, and mental health issues in American colleges necessitate trigger warnings and safe spaces; the “exposure” method, a mental treatment advocated by Lukianoff and Haidt, is best administered by qualified therapists, not college professors, administrators, or peers. Furthermore, safe spaces specifically cater to minorities who lack a voice on campus; removing safe spaces would only seize power away from disenfranchised students.
In opposition to trigger warnings, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that “helping people with anxiety disorders to avoid the things they fear is misguided.” This paternalistic argument dismisses the fact that people have various ways of dealing with stress and trauma, and that exposing victims to their fears outside a psychotherapeutic environment can potentially cause more damage to their mental health. Lukianoff and Haidt make the mistake of conflating two entirely different situations: having a professionally qualified and controlled environment, and having a stranger or a professor throw distressing content at you without warning.
Furthermore, exposure therapy suits only a percentage of mental health sufferers, and therapists generally require a few sessions beforehand to talk through the victim’s personal experiences, as well as potential relaxation and mind control techniques. Advocating for the exposure method within a classroom or public setting ignores trust and guidance, two most important aspects of the therapeutic exposure.
In a hostile atmosphere where sexual assault and mental problems run rampant, trigger warnings and safe spaces can help facilitate a student’s emotional well-being and education. When discussing trigger warnings in particular, we must distinguish them from censorship of controversial ideas and topics. Trigger warnings do not “restrict speech” or “shield people from ideas and words that make them uncomfortable.” They serve as warnings preceding graphic or offensive material.
Although mental triggers are unpredictable, individuals have the choice of whether or not they wish to engage with the material from early on, without having to experience negative emotions associated with past trauma.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, more than 25 percent of college students in 2012 were diagnosed with mental illness or treated by a mental health professional, with 10 percent diagnosed with anxiety or depression. To make matters worse, 64 percent of those who left college without a diploma reportedly dropped out due to mental health concerns. Colleges cannot be held responsible for the emotional well-being of every student, and neither should they dilute coursework to suit the needs of students struggling with mental health. However, a clear warning beforehand provides students with a choice of engaging with distressing material.
Photo courtesy of The Guardian