I am a high school drop out. I say this because I need to start by acknowledging the limits of my knowledge. I am also a high school returnee, currently attending secondary school online. By this time next year, I will likely have the diploma I was not able to obtain exactly 20 years ago. I am also a person with PTSD. I am not an expert. What follows are my ideas. They are just ideas. They are not medical or psychological advice or a substitute for working with a professional or a support team of friends and/or family. I also don’t speak for all people with PTSD, because, despite what you’ve heard, we do not share a neural link or have secret meetings that we don’t tell you about.
As a high school student, trauma survivor and, I hope, a future post-secondary student, I’ve kept abreast of the debate surrounding trigger warnings in the classroom. There are writers and educators who are decidedly pro or anti, and those whose responses are more metered. Admittedly, the overwhelming preponderance of articles are against trigger warnings in education, citing censorship, the swaddling of young learners and political correctness as reasons not to engage in content related warnings.
Some of the comments I’ve read are dismissive of people who experience PTSD (about 8% of North Americans,) suggesting that, perhaps, they just aren’t in a place where they are ready for a classroom setting. The implication is that, with some help, survivors will make themselves well enough that the warnings will not be needed. It is a classic argument used against people living with neurological or emotional differences: Fix yourself before others have to interact with you. Be well first, THEN you can be a part of society. This attitude begins with the problematic assumption that all people with mental health challenges have access to care, that they are not already actively involved in treatment and that treatment can accomplish wellness in the short term.
As a sufferer of PTSD and depression who is approaching my 40s, who has been in some form of treatment or another for half my life, I have no desire to wait for wellness before pursuing an education. Still, I understand the reticence of educators to try to view every lesson plan from the perspective of every student and their potential triggers. It would, eventually, detract from the quality of their work, their ability to spontaneously follow a lesson’s organic flow and their freedom to select material that is both potentially triggering and well-suited to their lesson.
A stumbling block for educators is the broad spectrum of topics and ideas that can be triggering, and the concept that introducing potentially triggering topics is always detrimental – which, of course, it isn’t. On topics like homelessness, abuse, the mental health system or a slew of others, having a voice like mine in the conversation is valuable. I took a sociology course as part of my high school studies, and was the only person who could answer from a first person perspective the question, “Would you steal food/is it right to steal food if you were/are starving?” Almost everyone else said no. I was able to present a pretty convincing argument for yes, because I know what starving feels like. To remove the voices of the traumatized from education is to remove a trove of experiential wisdom.
In an attempt to balance the value of ideas and the safety of individuals, I suggest an approach that empowers the person with trauma, as well as the educator. On the first day of class, the educator can openly acknowledge that their class will probably cover topics and materials that may be hard for trauma survivors or those experiencing PTSD. If someone feels that they are likely to be triggered (while accepting that many PTSD sufferers want no such accommodation) they can either meet with the teacher to discuss in person what challenges they could face or they can submit the same in writing. Anyone requesting pre-class warnings when certain topics will be knowingly covered in a class or in the material, will be asked to develop a trigger plan. A trigger plan is a series of steps one can take to either work through a symptom or to exit a class safely if symptoms should arise. My trigger plan includes accessing a great app I use to work through my symptoms, sitting near doors or windows, keeping comfort foods or beverages on hand, having my medication ready and writing down my physical sensations. These work for me (sometimes) but may not work for all people experiencing PTSD symptoms. The goal is to personalize the plan to maximize classroom time for the student and minimize conflicts for the instructor.
Trigger warnings, like all other accommodations, don’t work as a one size fits all proposal. That’s when they start to resemble censorship. The answer, though, isn’t to eliminate trigger warnings completely. Ideally, conversations around trauma allow students an opportunity to be frank and set their own safe parameters. Teachers admit that they can better help their students by treating them like individuals and students take responsibility for preparing for the inevitable times when a trauma-reaction can not be predicted.
This solution assumes that the teacher or professor is open to creating this dialogue. I understand that many educators either do not know how to start the conversation or, as is sometimes the case, have no desire to. If trauma survivors have a desire to try to create this dynamic, I’ve made a form that can be filled out to help get the ball rolling. It’s a PDF, which means it should be readable by almost any device. Feel free to print it out, share it and use it. The sooner we start a real conversation that includes people with PTSD and trauma survivors (who are often drowned out by the more widely accessible opinions of educators and columnists) the sooner we can get back to the business of learning.