Safe spaces are a symptom of student support failings

This article was also published at HuffPost. 

Debate around safe spaces, trigger warnings and university censorship erupted online during the latter half of 2015. One of the articles that sparked debate was a front page feature in the The Atlantic, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, in which Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt claim that a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces may be making students’ mental health worse.

The mental health of students remains a major concern globally, so I spoke with leading trauma psychologist and Harvard Professor, Richard McNally, about Lukianoff and Haidt’s claim. Professor McNally appeared to be in agreement, saying, “Although unquestionably well-intentioned, trigger warnings and their implied counsel of avoidance are likely to be counter-therapeutic for students.”

The conclusion seems simple enough: students ought to be exposed to anxious situations, so any students promoting safe spaces and trigger warnings are being unhelpful towards struggling peers. But is it really that simple?

Research suggests that the therapeutic framework known as ‘exposure therapy’ is not without controversy, and, crucially, that it requires close management by a trained therapist. If this is the case then while blanket avoidance is unhelpful, blanket exposure isn’t necessarily therapeutic, either. There is a judgment call to be made about what’s appropriate for the individual, and it’s one that neither students nor academics are typically trained to make.

In the minds of Lukianoff and Haidt, exposure should be the default, and students have no authority to impose forms of ‘avoidance’ on their peers. Some of the world’s most distinguished academics and intellectuals appear to agree. But despite condemning the actions of students, few of the critics have talked about what ought to instead be done to help distressed students.

Lukianoff and Haidt devote over seven thousand words to arguing why students shouldn’t avoid troubling ideas, but they give just two words of advice to those with struggling in spite of (or because of) exposure: “get treatment”. No advice is offered as to how students might do this; nor any consideration of whether such services are readily available. As with most of the criticism of trigger warnings and safe spaces, the circumstances facing genuinely distressed students don’t appear to be a primary concern.

Civil liberties might be a more popular discussion point, but the failing of support services is an issue highly relevant to debates about campus censorship. “If certain course material produces intense distress”, said Professor McNally, “then students should strongly consider seeking psychological treatment.” When I pressed him on where he believes responsibility for this lies, he made it clear that it goes beyond the students, adding, “universities need to know how to refer students to therapists best trained to help them overcome the effects of trauma.”

It’s a given that students struggling with mental health issues should seek out professional support. But a brief glance at the state of support services shows that finding what they need is far from straightforward, and that universities continue to fall short of Professor McNally’s guidance. In the UK, mental health services have faced heavy criticism over cuts; university counselling services are overstretched; and the culture of pastoral care in higher education that previously saw university staff informally care for students has all but disappeared.

Lukianoff and Haidt are apparently either oblivious to these issues, or consider them irrelevant. But without adequate support services, the burden for helping struggling students increasingly falls on their peers. Some of these will be manageable struggles; others less so. It should be of little surprise, then, that students are growing more active and outspoken on the issue of student welfare.

Instead of criticising the methods of those students stepping up to try and help their peers, we can admire their compassion, and respect their determination to plug a failing support system. And if civil liberties campaigners don’t want this to deteriorate into censorship then they can join efforts to make sure that adequate support exists.

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