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