by Roxanna Bennett
A few years ago I signed up for an Artist-Educator class. I was working at an art gallery teaching kids and wanted to learn to write a more structured curriculum. I was super stoked about taking the class. It was a ten-week night school course, the class size was small, entrance was competitive and tuition was expensive.
The instructors were warm, friendly, and knowledgeable. The other students were creative, interesting, and passionate about the pedagogy of arts in education. The coursework was engaging and intensive. There was nothing not to like about having the privilege of being chosen to be a student in this class.
But five weeks in, I was forced to quit.
I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,(C-PTSD) which differs from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in that the trauma that caused my condition is not one single event but a lifetime of multiple traumas beginning in early childhood.
C-PTSD is chronic and can mean a lifelong struggle with symptoms like hypervigilance to threat, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty achieving REM sleep, dissociation, depersonalization, depression, and a host of related issues such as eating disorders, self-harm, identity disorders, paranoia, hallucinations, agoraphobia, and selective amnesia.
One of the hallmarks of anxiety and trauma disorder are panic attacks that can be triggered by outside stimuli. Triggers can vary greatly from person to person. While it is simple to assume survivors of, for instance, sexual assault, would be triggered by watching a violent television show or reading about a similar incident in the paper, this would be disingenuous. Triggers are subjective, intensely personal and can appear innocuous.
At the time I signed up for the class I had been in therapy three to four times a week for several years and was transitioning off of Long Term Disability. I had worked very hard to develop a skill set that would get me out the door in the mornings and allow me to manage panic attacks, a medication regimen to regulate my sleep and a lot of support from friends. I felt in control of my life, positive about my future and excited at my prospects.
Imagine my shock when I experienced a sudden, full-blown panic attack during a simple group game during my class. There were eight of us in the room, standing in a circle, tossing a volleyball back and forth in an example of a warm-up exercise that we could use with future students.
As each person caught the ball they said their name and the name of the person who had thrown the ball to them, and the person before them, all the way back to beginning of the game. As the ball flew around the room I noticed that I was clenching my teeth. I started to feel like I couldn’t get enough air, my muscles were rigid, I was flinching each time someone caught the ball, my ears were ringing, and the next thing I knew I was in the bathroom, icy water streaming over my wrists, staring into a mirror watching tears streak down my cheeks. My mouth tasted like bile, my teeth were chattering and I was shuddering uncontrollably.
Later I asked to speak to one of the instructors privately. I quickly informed her that I had PTSD, that I had had a panic attack and I was fine but could not continue with the rest of the class that evening. I asked her for the homework assignment, she was warm and compassionate and she also, in all innocence and goodwill, tried to give me a hug.
Bad move on her part.
I froze in her arms, mumbled something meaningless at her and ran home, flickering in out and out of awareness as I did so. After years of therapy I have identified some of my triggers; being touched by a stranger is one. But being in a small circle of adults tossing around a ball was not a situation I had ever thought I needed to work on in therapy. I had no clue it was a trigger until it happened.
I worked ahead on the coursework, emailed the instructors asking them to be informed in advance about the evening’s activities, and dreaded going back to class.
I tried to focus on how much I loved the work I was doing and how the course would help me as a teacher. It didn’t work. Each week I handed in my impeccable homework; each week I freaked the heck out during group activity time. Apparently doing group work with strangers in any capacity, from writing lesson plans and presenting them in class, to practicing ice-breakers, caused a total meltdown.
All my PTSD symptoms that had been in control flared up again; anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, agoraphobia. As compassionate as the instructors were, the school insisted on a certain amount of class-time to pass and gain certification. It didn’t matter how well reasoned and written my assignments were: without the group time I would fail.
The instructors advised me to withdraw from the class with an incomplete instead of sticking with the course and failing. So I quit, too late into the semester to even get my tuition back. Do I think the instructors could have been more accommodating of my mental health? Yes, if only because as artist instructors, part of our studies included working with a host of different abilities and communication spectrums in children.
It seemed to me hypocritical that the subject matter that we were taught did not extend to us as students. Do I think the class should have come with a trigger warning? Absolutely, unequivocally not. “TW (Trigger Warning) for volleyball and coming into incidental physical contact with well-meaning professionals” is pretty ridiculous.
A few weeks ago student leaders at the University of California passed a resolution asking officials to label course syllabi with trigger warnings, give students advance notice if a lesson contains triggering material and the option to skip those classes without penalty. This led to a wider discussion around the web about the ramifications and efficacy of applying trigger warnings in academia.
Many feminist blogs already apply a “TW” to posts that contain material that might be broadly interpreted as triggering: sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence. Films and TV shows already come with ratings that are usually quite specific, such as warnings for graphic violence, mature situations, nudity, coarse language.
But is it reasonable to apply trigger warnings to academic course materials?
It is incredibly difficult to apply comprehensive trigger warnings to every single lesson plan, because it is impossible to expect the world to know what a student’s triggers are. If, like me, you can’t handle a game of happy fun ball without freaking the heck out, gym class might not be for you at this time. But it isn’t that hard to add a few lines of text to a course outline warning of possibly triggering subject matter.
Students in Ontario who have been designated as having exceptional needs receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP) developed with input and support from parents or guardians, psychologists and other professionals, to meet their needs. This can include supports like having texts dictated, homework scribed, extra time in class and opportunity to take tests and exams in a separate environment from the classroom.
An IEP designation can carry forward from elementary to post-secondary school according to individual needs. If a student is identified as having PTSD, then they, like any other student with a designation, should receive some kind of academic support.
Adding a few lines of warning, or even a code (DV for domestic violence for example) to course outlines so that students have an idea of what to expect before they sign up can be a way of accommodating their needs without putting trigger warnings on individual lesson plans.
A general list of topics that will be covered in class is another accommodation that could give students the opportunity to build a support plan with their Academic Resource advisor. If for instance, a film class requires students to watch a movie with violent scenes, perhaps the IEP could include having the student read the script but not watch the film, watch another movie by the same director or offer a reasonable substitute for the lesson instead of skipping the assignment without penalty, which is unfair to other students. Personally, I am less likely to be triggered by reading a story than I am by watching a film.
But that might not be the same for someone else, which is exactly an example of why it’s hard to be too detailed and predict every possible trigger.
When I had to quit my class I was devastated and angry. Why couldn’t they change the course for me? It wasn’t just the anger and disappointment; it was also the embarrassment of being walked out of every class by well-meaning instructors, all eyes on me. It was the shame of crying in the bathroom, the bewilderment of my classmates.
In my case, even if I had a week-by-week breakdown of every single activity we were going to do in the course I still would have had no idea that any of it was triggering until the moment I was in the situation. There is nothing the school could have done differently to warn me that I might not be suited for that class.
The daily world is a minefield for everyone, even those without mental health disorders. You might avoid a certain subway stop because you could run into someone you don’t want to see. You might screen your calls because there’s someone you don’t want to talk to. You might switch dentists because the one you have creeps you out. You might never wear the colour red because your high school nemesis had a red sweatshirt and it reminds you of her.
Common labels for discussions that might prove upsetting seems minimally courteous and not difficult to implement. Specific trigger warnings is a lovely fantasy, but none of us live in that world. We’re all here in the minefield together.