It seems that not a week goes by without another university official or public commentator opining on how trauma survivors are making things hard on everyone else, what with their wanting trigger warnings before discussion of sensitive materials. This position, wanting a warning, is almost always strawmanned into refusing to engage with material, attend lectures, or complete assignments. In the spring of this year, Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to declare that trauma survivors shouldn’t try for a university education with the hashtag #UPNFY (university is probably not for you). This idea is echoed by many others, that if one is a trauma survivor who needs any minor level of accommodation, that person should simply opt out of public life. The unsaid implication left hanging is of course that trauma survivors should stop inflicting the symptoms of their mental distress on good clean normies.
Dawkins even went so far as to characterize some of these survivors as “unworthy” of an education if they could not handle “new” ideas. This reveals a profound ignorance of PTSD and similar conditions. It is generally painfully and terribly familiar ideas that cause distress, not new ideas. Trauma comes from experience not from coddling. The sudden reminder of this trauma can cause flashbacks, depression, or extreme temporary mental distress, which in turn impacts short-term learning capacity and cognitive functioning. Selectively impairing the capabilities of students with certain traumatic histories in a learning environment should be seen as educational discrimination. And the idea that some prospective students are “unworthy” of education because of their trauma history is particularly nasty. I started to wonder how many people this might mean excluding from university in my own country, the United States.
Trauma is defined either as a catastrophic or troubling event, like a car accident or house fire, or as the response to such a catastrophic or troubling event. Many people go through experiences that have a potential to cause trauma without being traumatized. Many others don’t. For those who are traumatized by a disaster, accident, or abuse, certain reminders of what they have been through can mentally transport them back to the time and place of the traumatic event. This is called a “flash back”. The reminders that can cause this reaction are sometimes called “triggers”. “Trigger warnings” are content warnings like you might find before a late night television drama, letting you know about the nature of the content, particularly sexual or violent.
In the United States each year, there are about 3.7 million home invasions, 30,000 fatal motor vehicle accidents, and nearly 300,000 incidents of sexual assault, as well as an average 17 earthquakes and 5 hurricanes, while 3 million children witness domestic violence. Any of those events can result in measurable differences in brain functioning. It’s important to note that the majority of people who go through disruptive or disastrous life events do not develop diagnosable mental illnesses as a result. And rates of PTSD following a traumatic event vary by the time of trauma; sexual assault survivors are more likely to experience trauma than survivors of natural disasters. What’s more, people heal from traumas at different times and with different therapeutic practices. Most natural disaster victims who do develop diagnosable conditions feel better within two years. Many veterans with PTSD do not feel better within two years. Neither survivor is a worse person for their rate or level of recovery.
It’s important to accommodate disabled and traumatized students. That may mean allowing a combat veteran with PTSD to do a book report on the history of tactics instead of a movie review of Saving Private Ryan or it may mean letting students know before you begin reading The Color Purple that sexual assault will be a theme explored in the book. Every student who is willing to try is worthy of an education, and every student deserves a safe place to learn.