Emotional Elitism and PTSD

A few weeks ago a supervisor asked that a group of us read this interesting article from the New York Times, about the possibility of colleges placing “‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi that would flag potentially traumatic subject matter.” The idea being that so many students these days suffer from diagnosed or undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that the content of what is being taught in schools these days may in itself be enough to trigger overwhelming disruptive feelings of fear or terror. After reading the article I felt really torn between the two sides. On the one hand, I think it would be a crime to start censoring what is being taught in higher education; it seems like history is only more likely to repeat itself if we can’t address the horrors of our past. On the other hand, this article seems to speak volumes about the issue of untreated mental health issues in our culture. If the purpose of higher education is to churn out responsible citizens who are professionally capable in their respective fields of study, then here is my proposal: put the trigger warnings on syllabi and request that students sign a waiver stating that they are emotionally competent to handle the subject matter therein. If they refuse to sign the waiver, then they cannot take the course. If they have PTSD, then they need to be treated for PTSD. I fully recognize that this sounds like emotional elitism, but I think that it points to something much bigger. What if making the demand that students actually get the help that they need made a difference? 

During our group discussion about this article, one person pointed out how even fairytales can be triggering. Or worse… traumatizing! An hour later in that same day I was running a depression group and this idea was brought up again! For ten minutes the group rattled off the names of children’s movies and children’s stories that triggered nightmares for days, weeks and even years. Maybe trauma is built right into our culture. Recently I watched Disney’s Tangled (2010), and it was almost shocking to see this clip where Rapunzel is finally free from her kidnapper whom she thinks to be her mother:

While it seems right that they at least suggested the debilitating trauma that one might experience after being wrongly imprisoned in a tower for 18 years, it also seems that the disturbing emotional content of such a scenario would be far too much for any child to handle, much less begin to understand. 

Later in the week my supervisor put a trigger warning on the bin where we keep fashion magazines in the art studio, so that the women who experience eating disorders can make the decision for themselves whether or not they are able to handle looking at images of grotesquely photoshopped women or be subject to page after page of dieting ads. But the difference is that these women are virtually surrounded by staff who are professionally trained to help them through flashbacks and panic attacks. Where is that kind of support in the school system? Here’s my point: to me, the students mentioned in the New York Times article are letting us know that perhaps we are on the verge of (in the middle of?) an epidemic – one that has been ignoring the severity of mental health issues, especially trauma, across the board for the public in general. Maybe it’s time to bring this matter to school in a way that will simultaneously bring healing. Let’s start with kindergarten. 

Copyright 2014 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.