Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, And The College Mental Health Crisis Media Coverage Ignores


The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan criticizes the “Trigger-Happy Generation” in her latest column, adding to the increasingly wide range of media figures questioning the merits of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on college campuses. But her attacks in particular reveal a troubling element largely missing from this debate: an honest assessment of the crisis of mental health support for students. 

Trigger warnings and safe spaces, in theory, attempt to warn and shield students from material that might remind them of past trauma or reinforce a hostile experience. In practice, they take on many different forms, giving ammunition to both defenders and critics who often see them as overzealous attempts to shield students from reality.

In her May 21 column, Noonan places herself squarely in the critics' camp, labeling on-campus advocacy for safe spaces and trigger warnings as “part of a growing censorship movement.” She specifically targets an opinion piece in a Columbia University newspaper, which described in part a survivor of sexual assault wanting greater protection after feeling triggered during a class discussion on the rape scenes in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Noonan argues that the world is an unsafe place, and that students shouldn't try to shape it into something more comforting:

There is no such thing as safety. That is asking too much of life. You can't expect those around you to constantly accommodate your need for safety ... [I]f you constantly feel anxious and frightened by what you encounter in life, are we sure that means the world must reorder itself? Might it mean you need a lot of therapy?

Noonan is being flippant, but her dismissive joke actually points to a growing problem: colleges don't offer students enough mental health support, which may be one explanation for the growing trend of students trying to create safe spaces and safe texts for themselves.

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the same day Noonan's column was published, a report released as part of the campaign found that millennials who work (which would include many college students) have the highest rates of depression of any generation. Last year, The Washington Post noted that according to recent studies, “44 percent of college students experienced symptoms of depression, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students.”

And victims of rape, intimate-partner violence, stalking, or sexual assault -- which the Columbia University student Noonan highlighted reportedly was -- are “drastically more likely to develop a mental disorder at some point in their lives,” according to a 2011 Journal of the American Medical Association study, CNN reported at the time.

These students often don't have access to help, including the therapy Noonan blithely suggested. In 2011, the American Psychological Association labeled the state of mental health on campuses a “growing crisis,” and they've continued to track the concerns since. College counseling centers, they explained, “are frequently forced to come up with creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported reducing the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing number of clients.” 88 percent of campus counseling centers surveyed by the American College Counseling Association said they experienced staffing problems due to the increase in demand, the Baltimore Sun reported in 2013.

Some see this rise in numbers as a partially good sign, as it indicates more students are aware of the services available, and that the stigma against seeking help may be diminishing.

But as of 2012, only 56 percent of four-year colleges and universities offered on-campus psychiatric services. Fewer than 13 percent of community colleges did as well. The services can't keep up with the rise in demand.

To be sure, not all of the students asking for safe spaces or trigger warnings on their campuses need therapy, nor are they all seeking these spaces because of a general lack of robust mental health service on their campuses. However, I know at least some of them are, because that's exactly what I did.

When I attended Vassar College from 2008 to 2012, I sought therapy on campus in part to recover from my own experience of abuse. The campus health services were extraordinarily helpful for me -- until they couldn't be. Because I wasn't a crisis case (I wasn't dealing with thoughts of suicide or self-harm in any way, for example), they asked if I would be willing to surrender my sessions to students facing a greater need.

Given their limited resources, this request made sense, and I was willing to oblige. But the sudden lack of a regular, dedicated place and time where I did feel safe and could work through everything from daily frustrations to larger trauma was deeply noticeable.

So when my friends and I decided to establish a “safe space” on campus for students who identified as women, it was for me a direct response to the lack of the more formalized support system therapy might have offered. Roar, as we called it, met once a week for an hour or two on Sunday nights, and gave us a chance to express fears, doubts, and confusions. We discussed everything from minor complaints, to triggering texts that appeared in our classes, to assault and abuse, and tried to offer one another coping strategies -- and sometimes just a shoulder to cry on. According to friends, Roar is still active on Vassar's campus today.

As my friend Alyssa Rosenberg notes in the Washington Post, “in a world where members of marginalized communities do experience regular slights and hostilities, there is really something quite modest about the hope that a few spaces can be made to feel predictable.” For survivors of trauma that exceeds daily slights, that hope seems even more reasonable.

Providing students with robust mental health services would not eliminate everyone's desire for trigger warnings or safe spaces, but it would allow those who need that additional support an outlet beyond the classroom.

And media figures who seek to mock the students who are making these requests for moments of predictability and security in their lives should first ask if the students really have any alternatives.  

Image via Tulane Public Relations on Flickr using a Creative Commons License