Movies are rated from G to X, increasing in severity of material. G stands for General Audience, meaning the material should be enjoyable to most people. X tends to mean there is intense sexual or violently graphic content. An R-rated movie, for example, is not open to anyone younger than age 18 and requires valid ID to enter. The rating system is supposed to prevent children from experiencing film content which could be disturbing to them. Similar rating systems happen before TV shows air, as labels on music albums, and even on books.
School systems adopted a warning system to aid students before class. College is meant to be a time of mental and psychological growth. The mind is being opened, challenged, and pushed more than it has in previous academic training. Consequently, some minds may not be prepared for some of the material presented, especially if it will trigger trauma.
In psychology, a “trigger” is a stimulus that brings up especially difficult emotions, memories, or physical feelings. “Triggers” are usually assigned to experiences undergone by people who have been diagnosed with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. For example, a military veteran who has returned to civilian life and is pursuing an education might be triggered by videos shown in class about war. People experience a spectrum of traumas in their lives. Though there is no way of knowing who will be triggered by what trauma, it is considered respectful of academic institutions to offer a warning. Students need to maintain their mental health in order to perform well and survive school.
Arguments against Trigger Warnings
Richard J. McNally recently wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “If you Need a Trigger Warning, You Need PTSD Treatment”, responding to Chicago University Dean Jay Ellison. The Dean came under fire recently when he openly proclaimed in his welcoming letter to incoming students (class of 2020) that there would be no “trigger warnings” available for them this academic school year.
McNally argues that while trauma is common, an actual diagnosis of PTSD is rare. He cites that most people have experienced trauma and end up with “transient stress symptoms”. Though triggering situations are stressful, they are manageable. Few people do not recover. Someone with untreated or ongoing PTSD will have episodes in reaction to triggering course material. Interestingly, McNally argues that encouraging the avoidance of triggering material, like allowing the student to skip class, prevents important healing. Demonstratively, adverse reaction to college classes on an emotional level indicates a need for more mental health care in the student.
Though teachers may be advised against giving students a trigger warning, it would benefit them to be aware of mental health first aid. Should a student be troubled by class material, a teacher should be prepared to guide that student toward the campus counseling office for psychological services. Underlying mental health issues might surface for the first time when someone is away at college, on their own for the first time. Of course, one cannot expect the world around them to be sensitive to their particular triggers. Learning how to manage mental health is as important for young people as learning anything else in school.