Feature

We know about them from "Dateline" stories on kidnappings and from gory shows such as "Game of Thrones." But trigger warnings — the messages that alert viewers of disturbing material such as rape or violence — may now have a place in the classroom.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, student government has issued a guideline asking faculty to include warnings in syllabi. The goal is to allow students who may have experienced traumas to miss classes that have emotionally upsetting material without affecting their grades. Other students, including those at Rutgers University and Oberlin College have raised similar concerns over content.

But trigger warnings are controversial. As soon as Santa Barbara students issued their guideline, free speech groups and the media criticized them as a generation that needed to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. They also raised the question of where to draw the line. Would a professor teaching "The Great Gatsby" now need to warn students about violent content, as recommended by one Rutgers University student?

And how far should these warnings go? Students and professors at Oberlin College have been battling this year over the draft of a guide that would require professors to include trigger warnings about content that implies racism, sexism and discrimination against transgender individuals and people with disabilities.

At Santa Barbara, professors worried that students might file official complaints to the university, resulting in a judicial nightmare that would jeopardize their careers, The New York Times reported in May.

"There is a certain paradoxical challenge for me about this issue," says Jane Close Conoley, PhD, dean of UC Santa Barbara's Gevirtz School of Education and a professor in the department of counseling, clinical and school psychology. "I always strive to be sensitive to the life circumstances and history of each of my students. On the other hand, university education is meant to provoke and cause disequilibrium, to confront with data, unpopular views and surprising situations."

The role of psychology educators

There's no research yet on trigger warnings in the psychological literature, so psychologists don't know what effect they might have. That's one of the reasons psychology educators including Conoley are hesitant to endorse such requirements.

But the research does show that no one can predict who will experience secondary trauma from material.

And many people have been exposed to trauma, says Eileen Zurbriggen, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied vicarious trauma in the undergraduate classroom. "As many as 50 percent of students have some trauma history, and even small doses of representations of trauma can affect people." She recommends that trauma experts educate faculty about the potential reactions that students can experience.

Meanwhile, Elana Newman, PhD, a University of Tulsa psychology professor who is also research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, sympathizes with both sides of the argument. "Whether or not the warnings are required, I still think that it is ethically responsible to share with students your course content so that they can be prepared, given the high rates of sexual assault among college students," she says.

Solutions in the classroom

Psychology educators can play an important role in helping other professors introduce triggering material in classes since they have experience addressing material on trauma and other difficult topics.

Newman, for one, provides warnings in her course syllabus and offers students ways of excusing themselves from triggering material without leaving them feeling ashamed or embarrassed. She also recommends that universities educate faculty on vicarious trauma, rather than requiring trigger warnings. "It's not possible to warn students about all possible triggers at all times, but it is responsible to know that students are grappling with difficulties and deserve to be aware of the topics in the course, just like you'd make them aware of the grading criteria," she says.

While classroom accommodations may prevent short-term distress, they don't address the long-term work that is required to address trauma. "We must learn to regulate our emotional responses to triggers if we are to be successful in life," says Conoley. "This requires the hard cognitive and emotional work of mindfulness, anxiety reduction techniques and seeking social and professional support."

Some professors, including Zurbriggen, encourage their psychology students to start doing so by taking responsibility for their reactions at the beginning of a course. She asks students to create a list of coping practices and people they can consult if they are affected by course material.

For non-psychology educators, providing information upfront can help students decide whether they are prepared to take a course. For example, students in a film criticism class with graphic images might be better off sitting it out until they are prepared for the content.

"The way the story is framed [in the media] sometimes is that students are so vulnerable or that they need to toughen up, and that's not the issue," says Zurbriggen. "Most trauma survivors have a lot of resilience. Providing information to students always makes the class a better experience and prepares them to dive into the material in a way that promotes learning."

Kathleen Smith is a journalist in Washington, D.C.