For those of you who have not experienced the infamous ‘trigger warning’, I shall offer a brief explanation. A trigger warning is a statement issued before the viewing of a video or image or other piece of media that alerts consumers that it may be distressing or potentially cause extreme discomfort. Trigger warnings are typically issues when touchy subjects such as rape, war or abuse are mentioned. These warnings are given in case an individuals personal experience with this issue may lead to them experience negative psychological outcomes. I have no issues with trigger warnings in principle but I do however take issue with the way they have leaked from popular media into our university classrooms.
As a psychology student, I am frequently confronted with potentially upsetting material in class. We discuss mental illness, violence, abuse, rape, bullying and anything else you can imagine that would negatively impact on a potential clients mental health. To me, it is important that we, as future mental health professionals, become well versed in discussing these topics. As a psychologist, compartmentalisation is an important skill needed to fulfil our job requirements. We must be able to remove ourselves and our feelings and our experiences from our sessions with clients. But I feel that the current university climate does not prepare students for this harsh reality of our future careers.
On my universities online portal we have been given several messages pertaining to trigger warnings. ‘In tomorrows class we will be discussing bullying/depression/eating disorders/abuse. If these topics are too upsetting for you, it is not required that you attend this class. You will not have points deducted from your attendance for not coming to class. Just let your tutor know.’ I’ll be honest, as someone who has experience all of the above, I think that this is simply unacceptable. Not only can your experiences help you and other students learn but that is just not how the real world works. As a psychologist you can not tell clients ‘I’m sorry I can’t talk about that topic it upsets me too much.’
As tough and perhaps insensitive as it sounds, students need to toughen up. I am not saying offering students support and understanding when discussing these topics is wrong. But I do believe the current system is doing it in the wrong way. University staff should be less focused on preventing students from experiencing negative feelings and more focused on helping them interpret and channel them into something constructive. If students become upset, adequate debriefing procedures need to be put in place to help students along the way. But preventing them from feeling any negative feelings during their study of Psychology is simply folly.
The very nature of what we are studying is confronting. We shouldn’t avoid it we should embrace it. I am of the attitude that negative feelings are there to tell us something. They teach us what we value and what we lack. I think that is healthy. If we constantly avoid negative feelings and we live in this artificial world in which nothing confronts us, we aren’t going to grow and change much.
As I said, trigger warnings do have a place in broader society, but in Psychology classrooms, they prevent us from facing the demons that we may need to face in order to be great in our future careers.