SINCE beginning my studies at the Australian National University, I’ve noticed a serious flaw in my fellow students’ approach to mental health. Their frequent use of trigger warnings — or ‘content warnings’, as they’re more often referred — is a grave mental health concern that seems to be flying under everyone’s radar.
Typically found in classrooms and at the top of news articles and social media posts, content warnings alert students of potentially distressing content.
Their use is currently being pushed by extremely mobilised student leaders who dominate control of student unions and student media.
Content warnings originated in the feminist blogosphere to warn victims of sexual assault about vivid depictions of sexual violence. Recently however, I’ve witnessed an explosion of the list of subjects that require a warning. They’re now used for mere mention of potentially distressing subjects — it’s these warnings that, though well-meaning, I believe are doing serious damage to the mental health of my peers.
For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a report in 2017 about sexual assault at Australian universities. Mere mention of the report’s existence required a warning. Any reference to the same-sex marriage postal vote also required a
I’ve seen content warnings for “discussion of invasion day”, “discussion of pornography”, “abortion” and “LGBT issues”. My student union has issued warnings for “holocaust denial”, “images of being bound” and “queerphobic behaviour”.
But it’s my student newspaper that has taken it to another level. They’ve used content warnings for discussion of “war”, “drugs”, “discrimination”, “sexism”, “racism”, “transphobia”, “homophobia”, “mental illness”, “displacement”, the #MeToo movement, “genocide”, “institutional betrayal” and “birth”.
In 2015, a highly influential article was published in The Atlantic titled: “The Coddling of the American Mind”. My student experience has convinced me that “The Coddling of the Australian Mind” has officially begun. And it’s not doing students any favours.
Rather than reducing fear towards certain subjects and non-progressive opinions, content warnings have only increased it. And rather than empowering students to conquer sensitive or disturbing subjects, they’ve only empowered the subjects’ ability to conquer students.
When the characters in Harry Potter called Voldemort “he who must not be named”, it only made him scarier. Dumbledore insisted that Harry call Voldemort by his real name. He knew that in the long-run, using the pseudonym only spread more fear and more emotional damage.
Content warnings are making Voldemorts out of certain subjects. They’ve created a milieu where certain subjects are considered taboo and inherently traumatising. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we don’t just develop our fears form our own personal experiences, but also from our environment.
“If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous — elevators, certain neighbourhoods, novels depicting racism — then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too,” Dr Haidt wrote in The Atlantic.
Psychiatrist Sarah Roff wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education that warnings “will apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students, creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history”.
Students are repeatedly warned before discussing sensitive subjects and opinions. As a result, all students (whether they’ve experienced trauma or not) are slowly beginning to believe that there’s something inherently or necessarily traumatising about them.
“About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students,” Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk wrote in The New Yorker.
Should we really be training students to think there’s something dangerous about discussing rape law? Or same-sex marriage? Or reports by the AHRC? Or the #MeToo movement?
Progress requires people have the resilience to discuss controversial subjects, especially with those opposed to it. Content warnings have killed such discussion. They’ve created ‘sacred’ subjects that are policed by cadres of condescending students perpetually monitoring who’s not toeing the party line.
Students with contrarian opinions stay silent to avoid the risk of triggering someone or sparking a heated debate about some emotionally-charged subject. Discussing controversial political issues with opponents isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly gotten a lot harder. We more often seek refuge in our respective echo chambers, making us even more intolerant of different opinions.
Following pressure from their student union, Monash University in 2017 became the first Australian university to actually impose content warnings in the classroom. The next step will see students actually censoring course material for being ‘too upsetting’ — something the Monash student union president refused to rule out.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) criticised content warnings for this exact reason: “If such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalised if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.”
According to the American Psychological Association in 2017 (the same year Monash instituted content warnings), “there is little support for the idea that offering generic classroom warnings about sensitive topics is beneficial to students.” Given this, I find Monash’s decision to be at best, impulsive, and at worst, extremely reckless.
Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally argues classroom content warnings actually hurt sufferers of PTSD. “Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD,” he wrote in The New York Times.
The most common and effective means of curing PTSD is through “exposure therapy”, which Dr McNally defines as “gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories” until one’s “capacity to trigger distress diminishes”. Avoidance of triggers is considered a symptom of PTSD, not a cure.
Dr McNally also pointed out that there’s a difference between experiencing trauma, and having PTSD. “Trauma is common, but PTSD is rare.”
According to Dr McNally, rather than diminishing the emotional resilience of all students, “universities can best serve students by facilitating access to effective and proven treatments for PTSD”.
Providing a content warning (that hasn’t even been requested) to the whole class every time any sensitive subject is mentioned, isn’t the answer. The minority of students with PTSD should be able to request temporary content warnings shortly after their experience of trauma. But individual accommodations only exist to provide students with enough time to seek help.
There should be an expectation that students learn strategies to conquer their triggers so they can rejoin the class without content warnings. If a student doesn’t yet have an effective strategy, short-term warnings in the classroom might be beneficial — but only if they’re requested and communicated privately, rather than broadcasted to the entire class.
We shouldn’t give academics, lecturers and journalists the job of constantly predicting the (often unpredictable) triggers of complete strangers. It’s the job of therapists to equip sufferers of PTSD with strategies to deal with those triggers.
And it’s the job of universities to firstly, mirror the real world in providing a reason to seek that treatment in the first place, and secondly, provide opportunities for sufferers of PTSD to practice their coping strategies, rather than providing an easy opt-out.
“I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different … I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym,” CNN’s Van Jones once said. Jones’ differentiation between safety and strength is spot-on. The implicit undertone of mental health discussion at university is no longer ‘strength’ and ‘resilience’, but ‘safety’ and ‘protection’.
Instead of desensitising students to discussion of certain subjects, content warnings have made them oversensitive. And when you’re oversensitive, you’re vulnerable. Life is a (content-warning-free) sequence of stress, pain and offence. Yet my peers are being fattened up with content warnings and safe spaces like pigs for slaughter.
Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among American students have shot up, and the trend has hit Australia. Dr Haidt has described this as a “crisis of resilience”.
“Growing numbers of college students have become less able to cope with the challenges of campus life, including offensive ideas, insensitive professors, and rude or even racist and sexist peers,” he said.
The transition from high school to university used to symbolise one’s first step into adulthood. But today’s students are prolonging their adolescence by demanding universities look more like high schools. Decades of helicopter parenting have forced students to find helicopter parents in new forms.
My generation have grown up relying on third party authorities to supervise us, resolve disputes between our peers and issue punishments. We’ve become accustomed to authorities that protect us and fulfil the role of mediator. During our childhood, the authority was our parents, and then our schools. Now, it’s our universities.
It used to be considered childish for a student to “dob on” another student to some university bureaucrat. Not anymore. The world is just so scary. And if you go to university, you’d assume it’s gotten scarier. Today’s students demand content warnings, safe spaces, bias response teams, on-demand therapy, micro-aggression policies and even more complaints procedures.
World War III nearly broke out at Yale in 2015 when a mob of students confronted a university administrator who refused to regulate which Halloween costumes students could wear. And Yale isn’t an anomaly. According to Pew Research, 40 per cent of Millennials support censorship of opinions they deem offensive. Some universities have capitulated to the students by banning certain public speakers.
In a massive shift in student attitudes, today’s students want university administrations to have more power over what they can say, hear and do. While students of the past wanted fewer rules and less protection, today’s students want more of both. They’re actually welcoming, if not demanding, their own infantilisation.
Follow Luke Kinsella on Twitter @luke_kinsella