While he was at Point Park University as a psychology professor, Todd Avellar sometimes used trigger warnings to caution undergraduate students about disturbing material and give them a chance to work through complex emotions.
He’s aware of polarized opinions about the concept — criticism that warnings are overly sensitive or amount to censorship — but in his view, it’s worth providing students space to prepare themselves for lessons on topics like sexual violence.
“Some people might be able to view something and they say, this is fine,” Avellar said. “Whereas for someone [else], that can be completely traumatizing.”
Avellar, who is also a clinical psychologist, said it’s important for instructors to understand the implications of lessons on students who have been through trauma.
What makes some students feel safe can be seen by others as limiting how freely they can speak.
That tension has followed trigger warnings since they moved from feminist blogs in the 2000s to broader use online and in other spaces like college classrooms. Proponents see them as a tool for viewers for participants to decide whether to engage with potentially traumatic material. Opponents criticize them as a symptom of political correctness, or worse, a way for individuals to hide from real world issues.
Research is also mixed, with some studies suggesting that trigger warnings could have a minimal effect, if not a potentially negative effect. Yet with a broader emphasis on mental health and trauma during the pandemic, they’ve become a common part of mainstream culture and continue to be a point of controversy and conversation.
What is a trigger warning?
A trigger warning is an advisory intended for people who live with conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to anxiety to let them know that something they may see or hear could trigger a physical and or psychological response. Smells, sounds, images and even seasons can be triggers, depending on the person.
When confronted with psychological triggers, individuals can experience things such as panic, fear, sadness and flashbacks.
Dr. Anthony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents, said the center typically steers clear of the term “trigger” — which can unintentionally evoke a violent image — and instead uses the term “trauma reminder.”
Mannarino said most people don’t have a full understanding of the impact of trauma, even though millions of Americans are living with some form of it.
For instance, he points to the prevalence of opioid addiction in the Pittsburgh region and media coverage that could be a reminder of trauma. Individuals who have experienced racial trauma and discrimination may similarly be reminded of those experiences when hearing about violence against Black people, including the murder of George Floyd by police.
When he’s leading trainings for mental health professionals, Mannarino often tells the audience they’re about to hear mentions of things such as sexual or domestic violence. He feels it’s a way to allow individuals who were personally impacted to prepare themselves.
“I’m not sure I really like the terminology ‘trigger warning,’ but I do like the idea of educating the audience a little bit about what they’re going to hear about,” Mannarino said.
Like many adolescents, Samantha van Staden enjoyed horror movies. But after her childhood best friend was sexually assaulted their first year of college, she realized how ubiquitous sexual violence was in mainstream media.
“We only realized after she had experienced this and obviously didn’t want to be exposed to it completely, without warning at any given moment while we were watching TV,” van Staden said.
So when she came across Unconsenting Media in its infancy in a University of Cambridge Facebook group and learned its founder would be graduating, she saw it as an opportunity to help fill an unmet need. The organization’s website contains a list of movies and television shows with a checklist for each to say if contains rape on-screen, child abuse, incest, mentions of rape, sexual harrassment along with a brief description.
Mostly, van Staden said, the feedback the website’s gotten has been positive, but she recalled receiving harsh criticism from conservative outlets and their readers.
The goal isn’t policing media choices, she said, but providing information that allows people to curate their media experiences. “I often receive emails …where people who use the website regularly tell me you know, ‘I use this all the time, this is something that I’m really grateful for,’” she said.
Censorship or freedom?
The Pittsburgh Inside Our Minds group hosts mutual aid spaces and online discussion in which participants often give notice before mentioning topics like suicide and self-harm. Alyssa Cypher, the organization’s founder, said trigger warnings are a part of the group’s commitment to the autonomy of the people they serve.
From Cypher’s perspective, individuals are able to express themselves, and the trigger warnings give their peers the ability to opt out if they feel it’s necessary.
“Someone who is not able or doesn’t want to hear that right now can either abstain, like turn off the sound, since we’re virtual,” Cypher explained. “Sometimes people just want a heads up so that they can like mentally prepare themselves.”
The rules for trigger warnings aren’t rigid, Cypher said. The group simply asks that they’re used so that members can continue to engage with the space the way they want to.
“If someone wants to talk about suicide, they have that right. But maybe someone lost someone recently or they made their attempt recently, I can’t know,” Cypher said. “I would rather make sure that everyone in my space is as cared for as possible.”
Over the years, the psychological studies released haven’t ruled in favor of trigger warnings. A 2019 Harvard study involving 451 trauma survivor participants found that trigger warnings may do more harm than good.
“Most empirical studies on trigger warnings indicate that they are either functionally inert or cause small adverse side effects,” the study said. The authors wrote that they found evidence that trigger warnings could “reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.”
A 2018 study found that trigger warnings could inadvertently lead to increased anxiety in response to disturbing material. Others suggested that they might not harm or help. One 2021 study, which focused on examining how trigger warnings impact the average student, reported that the use of trigger warnings didn’t negatively impact test scores. Regardless of whether warnings were used, positive emotions decreased, while negative emotions increased for participants after watching a video about sexual assault.
Trigger warnings in the classroom
A 2016 NPR study found that roughly half of the 800 professors surveyed had incorporated trigger warnings into their curriculums. This has presented some disagreement in academia on whether or not they belong in the classroom. The University of Chicago made headlines by welcoming its class of 2020 with a letter declaring that the campus didn’t believe in trigger warnings.
PublicSource reached out to Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham to learn if they had formal policies about trigger warnings. Each shared that they do not and leave it up to the discretion of professors.
Avellar encourages professors to see trigger warnings as an opportunity to open up discussions about how to best support students.
“If a student experiences a genuine trigger in the classroom, then that needs to be taken seriously,” Avellar said. “That student might have experienced trauma in the past or is going through a significant amount of pain. I would encourage support for that student to be able to work through those issues, such that they can re-engage with similar material in the future.”
He said he doesn’t think the conversation should be whether to use warnings. Instead, it should be around a crucial question: “How do we be responsive to the needs and issues that our students experience?
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s healthcare reporting.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.