How “Trigger Warnings” Affect Mental Health on College Campuses

A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of writing, or a video, that warns the viewer/reader that it contains potentially distressing material.  You have probably seen dozens of these warnings over the years, and probably didn’t give them much thought.

“Viewers should be advised that this film contains content that may be disturbing to some.”

It is often placed before many survival shows on TV, because sometimes these shows depict dead animals. Generally, these little blurbs are nothing but a quick warning. But now this tactic is being used on college campuses. Professors are being asked to attach trigger warnings to certain texts or classes that deal with particular subject matters. This could include a piece of literature that has violent scenes, or a blatant violent subject which could “trigger” stress or fear for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Common topics for trigger warnings include campus rape or mass shootings.

However, many wonder whether these trigger warnings do more harm than good.

A divergent issue part of the same topic of trigger warnings are microaggressions. Microaggressions are micro first of all, meaning that they are minor statements either said by accident (or sometimes on purpose) and they communicate hostile, racist or derogatory remarks. During the 2014-2015 school year, 10 California universities were presented training sessions in what is considered a microaggression and all the terms to avoid.  Some may refer to this phenomenon as being overtly politically correct.

Though one can argue it is not a bad thing to encourage people to think a bit more before they speak,  and be more empathetic, perhaps the true problem is that so many humans are unable to do this naturally. They are programmed to continue to push hard, work too much, and plug into electronics as opposed to their own psyche. Their view of the world is askew, as is the person who has the anxiety. Both then are facing a losing battle.

Adding trigger warnings and enforcing microaggressions are intended to make college feel “safer,” but on the other hand, this is giving more anxiety to the very people who are trying to avoid it. Restricting a person’s ability to express themselves, so they have to watch every little thing they say, will cause more anxiety. The more things are policed, the more you are controlled, the more anxiety you will feel. The more this is pushed on college campuses, a place where ideas are supposed to be expressed, the more repressed students become.

The fundamental aspect with these new warnings is the rampant anxiety that has increased over the years. A 2014 study by the American College Health Association found that 54% of students felt “overwhelming anxiety.” (This is up almost 10% from the same study 5 years earlier).With more TV programs broadcasting “news”, as well as social media and the internet, there is simply more “bad news” to read, but not necessarily more bad things happening. Life is often about perspective, and the perspective of many today does depend on their reading and viewing habits. People who are more plugged into to news programs are more on edge and afraid, where others more plugged into the world beyond this are more at ease. Maybe trigger warnings here and there are no big deal. Perhaps the fact so many people are so full of anxiety that they feel the need for them is the actual issue.