Trigger warnings for suicide, rape, child sexual grooming, bullying/assault, eating disorders (bulimia/purging), self harm
What are trigger warnings?
Simply put, a trigger warning is a means of alerting an audience to potentially distressing content in the material to follow.
Content warnings are already widely used in many facets of daily life: DVD cases alert to strong language, violence, scenes of a sexual and/or graphic nature; TV programmes will be introduced with warnings that “this programme contains scenes of war and may be distressing”; CDs are labelled as “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.” Furthermore, many articles online – as well as more casual posts on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr – now use trigger warnings. Even our food comes with content warnings.
Why should teachers use trigger warnings?
With students knowing they will be alerted to the things that cause them distress, and able to make autonomous decisions about their own mental well-being, there will be an increased sense of safety among students. This may well reduce truancy from lessons where triggers may occur, as well as increasing active participation in lessons:
“I used to dread English lessons, because of some of the poetry we studied. I don’t remember much of it, but at the time I was suffering from severe depression and self harm, so I guess that was coming up a bit. At first, I’d go to the sick bay before the lesson; eventually I’d just skip lessons entirely.”
By talking openly about the fact that some topics can be triggering, we can reduce stigma around mental health and survivorship – which can lead to increased communication between staff and students, and thus an increased potential to flag child protection issues.
How can they be used in the classroom?
A warning at the start of a lesson, and a further warning when that topic is about to be discussed should be displayed, and explained to the class. They needn’t be lengthy, but they should include information on what the triggering material is, and what students can do to avoid the trigger, and when.
You may wish to let students know that they can mentally zone out of distressing topics – by doodling, putting their head down (if images), or putting headphones in (if aural). It may be that students need to leave the lesson – if so, are they to remain outside your class, or is there a student welfare area they can go to, or a pastoral leader? By and large, these will need a case-by-case decision – with the student having autonomy.
Trigger warnings can also be displayed in student-selected reading books (such as library books) and in assemblies.
It is also advisable to direct students to places of support, whether that’s in-school, or external support groups and/or helplines.
What should I providing trigger warnings for?
Potential triggers can be things that evoke memories of past experiences (such as rape or assault), things that compel a student to engage in harmful activities (such as restrictive eating or self harm), phobias (such as wasps or spiders), or threats that are presented due to bullying and bigotry (such as racism or transphobia). Often, there may be an intersection between these – a student might find discussion of homophobia triggering due to past experience and present and future threat and this could compel them to suicidal ideation.
Common triggers include:
Bigotry against people with mental illness
Common phobias (eg. spiders)
It is worth noting that this list is far from exhaustive. Students may have triggers which are specific to them:
“In my teens, I had pretty severe bulimia: some foods were ‘safe’ but others were foods I used to commonly binge on. Encountering these foods tended to lead to compulsions to [purge] even if I hadn’t eaten them. It made my food tech lessons incredibly hard, and those were always some of my worst days.”
Obviously, teachers are not expected to be mind-readers: but if triggers are known – through disclosure, or a student being triggered – these should be dealt with in the same manner as more common triggers.
“I once had a student who couldn’t stand hearing or seeing anything to do with play-parks, or swings. It turned out that there had been some pretty serious bullying going on the year before, and he’d been physically attacked a couple of times in a play-park on his route home. Being reminded of that was really traumatic for him.”
Trigger warnings aren’t just useful to students
Trigger warnings can also contribute to staff well-being – and a lack of use can be detrimental:
“I recall a video being sent out to all staff, suggesting it was an excellent resource for anti-bullying week, and could we please play it in tutor times. A second member of staff – who had recently lost a close relative to suicide – emailed shortly after, with a trigger warning: for suicide.”
Another example: “I attended a compulsory e-safety training course, which happened to include a video. A video which described, in detail – and with no warnings – a situation which cut a little too close to home for me: I had to leave the room. The video was later shown in assembly – again, with no trigger warnings: and this time, no means of escape, for myself, or for any students who may have also been triggered.”
Teaching students to use trigger warnings
“As a teacher who suffers from depression – which, in bad periods can manifest as suicidal ideation – I rather dread creative writing assignments. I’m lucky to get just one piece in which a character commits suicide.”
Or, more amusingly (though decidedly not at the time!) a homework assignment: “My Fears”, as an introductory activity to the gothic genre, landed an essay about wasps on my desk – complete with a rather large photograph of the offending beast. A kind colleague offered to mark that particular piece of work.
By teaching students to use trigger warnings themselves, we foster empathetic skills in students, as well as further reducing stigma. By admitting that the people reading their work – teachers, parents, Ofsted inspectors – can also experience trauma when reading about these topics, we remove the sense of shame and embarrassment that many students report impedes their seeking help.
Of course, some students are reluctant to speak up – and we need to ensure that there are safe methods that these students can avoid being triggered, without forcing them into a “speak out or suffer” dilemma. Where teachers are aware of the trigger, students can be given the option to run an errand to avoid part of a triggering lesson, or have an out-of-lesson pass to go to a safe space. Other students may often request to use the bathroom when a triggering topic arises, as a means of avoiding the trigger in a discrete fashion, or students might instead mentally zone out of distressing topics. In some cases, a choice of activities can be offered where suitable.
“I remember having to do a project on what I was like as a baby – the problem was, my mum had really bad post-natal depression and it was hard for us to talk about. So my teacher let me write a different project, on what I’d tell a new parent to expect in the first three years. It really helped because I was able to take part in the topic without upsetting my mum or myself.”
The more we use trigger warnings, the more we explain the reasons and discuss the issues that make them necessary, to students and staff, the more we will reduce stigma and create safe environments for students and staff alike.
With thanks to our contributors, who have opted to remain anonymous.