After the birth of my first son, I had postpartum depression. I was a mess emotionally, and I was in desperate need of feeling safe. I had no idea what “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” were, but I had been using them internally for days—avoiding the mommy movies and choosing not to go to the breastfeeding support group where I felt like a failure. Being able to know beforehand what experiences I should avoid and create an environment where I felt safe made it easier for me to share my struggles and move past them. Everyone deserves that opportunity.
The University of Chicago recently decided to put an end to trigger warnings—advance notice of subject material that might upset students—and safe spaces—places where students can avoid those subjects. The university’s reasoning for ending these voluntary practices was a “commitment to academic freedom.” In reality, this policy puts many students in the uncomfortable position of entering spaces that may or may not be safe for them to learn, interact and share in—and puts the onus on them to leave or to endure the situation.
The decision doesn’t take students wants or needs into account. As the National Coalition Against Censorship notes: “In many cases, the request for trigger warnings comes from students themselves.” And safe spaces can have powerful therapeutic purposes for those who enter them.
In fact, the university’s new policy does the exact opposite of what it is purported to do: instead of fostering academic freedom, it could foster mistrust and negatively affect survivors of trauma, including people of color. If students cannot trust that spaces they enter are going to keep them safe, they are less able to feel secure enough to learn.
Safe spaces and trigger warnings can help support victims of assault, PTSD and violence. Organizations like Slut Walk and Take Back The Night have made great strides in ending stigma for sexual assault survivors and have called for increasing trigger warnings for sensitive content.
A lack of safe spaces can also compound the mental toll of racism, even subtle racism. Past experience with bullying plays a role here: Of the 160,000 children bullied every day, 31% are multiracial, according to Clemson University’s “Status of Bullying in School” 2013 report. Racial bullying often goes unnoticed or unreported due to how teachers perceive interethnic relationships. Psychologist Morris Rosenberg found that African-Americans showed surprisingly high rates of self-esteem when they compared themselves with other African-Americans, but when they compared themselves to white peers, self-esteem levels dropped. Safe spaces can help minorities feel empowered to speak up.
Some may say a commitment to free speech, by any means necessary, does more to foster a positive academic setting than safe spaces and trigger warnings. But the bigger question is: whose speech is being protected by these policies? They certainly don’t always foster a healthy relationship with students of color or survivors of trauma or those who live at the intersection of both.
Sitting in the dark holding my newborn and struggling with undiagnosed postpartum depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder were some of the darkest days of my life. But because of ratings systems on movies and descriptions on the TV guide, I was able to take small steps every day to commit to keeping myself mentally healthy. The pressure of living up to the stereotype of a proud, wise, confident Latina mother kept me from seeking help for a long time. But when my first postpartum depression support group facilitator said in a hushed, happy voice that this was a safe space, I felt the weight slowly start to lift from my chest. All the pent-up anxiety I had felt was dissapating—just by knowing that the physical place I chose to be in was filled with people who understood me and could help me find the tools to get well.
Being able to make informed decisions about which spaces students chose to enter and not enter is critical in helping them stay well and take control over the information they decide to receive and how to receive it. A critical phase of healing involves reclaiming power and control in positive ways.
Our universities should be at the vanguard of modeling the way forward—not backward.