A student with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Dalhousie University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders is fed up after multiple unsuccessful attempts to have sensitive content prefaced with content warnings in the classroom.
Abby Weisbrot is a third-year student at Dal, majoring in speech-language pathology. Weisbrot has been trying to receive trigger warnings in the classroom since her first year and has reached out to specific professors, her department head and Dal’s Human Rights and Equity Services (HRES). Almost two years after her first request, Weisbrot still finds the lack of content warnings concerning and frustrating.
“For people who have PTSD, it’s really hard to have a voice, we stay silent for a long time. There’s a lot of suppression and stigma and humiliation for people who need trigger warnings. So a lot of the time things are suppressed,” she said. “I’ve just gotten to this point where I’m kind of done. I think it’s time that someone starts speaking up for those people who often stay silent because they’re vulnerable.”
Content warnings by request
The Student Accessibility Centre for Dalhousie doesn’t include content warnings under its “types of accommodations” list, and on the Dalhousie “Info for Faculty” page, Human Rights and Equity Services (HRES) does not list content warning information either.
“HRES is right now developing community awareness of the value of content cautions during class discussions and course content, and more importantly the sensitive handling of situations that may be triggering,” Janet Bryson, Dalhousie’s associate director of media relations and issues management, said in an email to the Dalhousie Gazette. “However, individual faculty members do have control and discretion on how they teach their class.”
Under the Dalhousie Course Syllabus Guide, trigger warnings are listed as an optional addition, or to be added upon student request to the syllabus surrounding triggering class topics. Weisbrot sent an email to her program’s director, Michael Kiefte, in December 2020, requesting this change after receiving no replies from her professors in her first year.
Kiefte replied via email that the faculty had a meeting about the issue and determined that trigger warnings aren’t necessarily helpful because they can’t prepare students for the kinds of topics that may come up in a clinical practice. These emails were reviewed by the Gazette.
“The kind of work I want to do with my degree won’t expose me to things I’m just unprepared to hear at the moment, I’ll have control over the topics I’m dealing with,” Weisbrot said. Weisbrot hopes to work in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), a field that helps those who struggle with written and spoken language skills find different ways of communicating.
Weisbrot said that they know content warnings can’t be provided all the time in everyday life, but a classroom setting should be a space where students should be able to learn safely. “I have a lot of weight on my shoulders. I was silent in the past and I’m trying to slowly lift that off,” she said.
After Weisbrot’s request, a short statement defining trigger warning was added to the communication sciences handbook, which defines trigger warnings and warns of “topics that some students may find offensive and/or traumatizing.” The handbook hyperlinks to the University of Waterloo’s definition and guidelines for trigger warnings.
“A lot of people, including professors, don’t read the handbook or notice the handbook, which is clear because, this year, professors still don’t preface traumatic subjects,” said Weisbrot.
Kiefte told the Dalhousie Gazette in an email statement that “[faculty] are committed to working together with students to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and sensitivity.”
Why a warning would help
The recent amendment to the curriculum handbook for Weisbrot’s program defines trigger warnings as, “a statement made prior to sharing potentially disturbing content that can impact the wellbeing and academic performance of students who have experienced traumas in their own lives.”
For Weisbrot, content warnings would help her mentally prepare for difficult material in class.
“It really is about me preparing for that shock, or giving myself permission to leave. Because a lot of times when I’m triggered by something I freeze,” she said. “And that is really common for people with certain traumas, there’s a freeze element in which I am not able to speak or move or do anything.”
Hayley Ellwood is a psychologist who specializes in evidence-based treatment for people suffering from PTSD. Ellwood said when it comes to PTSD triggers and their responses, things vary for different people.
“It could be a particular sight, sound, smell, taste or sensation that was paired in time with a traumatic event,” Ellwood said. “In extreme cases, triggered individuals with PTSD may experience a flashback during which they lose touch with their current surroundings and experience the trauma as happening in the present moment.”
According to Ellwood, roughly three-quarters of Canadians report experiencing a traumatic event and about eight per cent of those will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stigma and inconclusiveness
“It is not universally agreed that trigger warnings are necessarily helpful, nor is it possible to anticipate all possible potential triggers for students,” Kiefte, the program director, said in his email to Weisbrot.
Like Kiefte, Ellwood also mentioned how some are skeptical of the value of trigger warnings. “Studies investigating the effectiveness of trigger warnings in minimizing negative effects of exposure to triggers indicate that they actually do very little to prevent emotional or physiological upsets,” she said. “And, interestingly, they may actually undermine resilience.” One 2019 study published in Clinical Psychological Science said a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful.
“But I believe that any student noticing that a mental health disorder is affecting their ability to meet their educational goal, should explore avenues in which they can advocate for themselves,” Ellwood said. She also wants students with PTSD to consider undergoing evidence-based therapeutic techniques including prolonged exposure therapy.
Ellwood said professors need to consider who may be in their classroom before using potentially disturbing material. “There is data that suggests that minorities and disadvantaged communities do experience more exposure to traumatic events,” she said. For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed that 90.1 per cent of Indigenous participants reported experiencing at least one type of traumatic event.
“I would certainly encourage professors to reflect on whether they may be making any assumptions about the experiences of those in the classroom, before showcasing particularly graphic material,” said Ellwood.
Second-year law student Grace Mangusso had heard stories similar to Weisbrots from students in her own program about not receiving content warnings. Over the summer, Mangusso created a report to the law program on the practice of trauma-informed teaching. The report is an internal document currently under review by the law school’s learning and teaching evaluation committee.
“I don’t want content warnings to just be a checked box, like a statement in a handbook,” said Mangusso.
Mangusso wants a more active approach to teaching sensitive issues. She said she wants professors to consider the unique situations of every student and look for different signs of trauma response. “Trauma impacts everybody differently.”
“Some professors are not necessarily oppositional but a little bit hesitant about this conversation,” said Mangusso.
Mangusso said a lot of professors assume trigger warnings are about censorship and completely cutting material from lectures, but she said this isn’t the case. “It’s more about not rushing into certain topics, it’s about listening to students’ needs and being inclusive so everyone can learn the things they need to at paces that suit their needs.”
Dalhousie currently offers workshops and classes in understanding trauma, taught by registered social workers, but Mangusso and Weisbrot would like to see more training for faculty. “I’d like to see Dalhousie provide professional development opportunities for professors to learn about trauma. And then they can take that information and apply it,” Mangusso said.
“Professors are very busy, and learning about how to approach these things may be daunting. So Dalhousie should be helping them understand this changing conversation.”