I collect examples of therapy culture in universities. I have dozens of photos of ‘bibliotherapy’ sections in libraries, ‘puppy rooms’, signs in toilets warning that ‘Stress turns your brains off’, and posters for courses on ‘Overcoming Perfectionism’.
Among the hundreds of leaflets I have collected that offer students counselling and emotional support, there is one from a university that offered support for students who might find the content of their courses stressful or depressing. The message was this: if you study sociology, you mind find that lots of people are poor; if you are studying nursing, you might discover that lots of people are sick; if you read history, you might read of terrible events. The student-support team that issued this leaflet obviously thinks students are so mentally fragile and morally feeble that they need counselling and support to tackle the content of the subjects they have chosen to study. It’s one of my favourite examples of therapy culture on campus; you couldn’t have made it up.
It’s not only smothering support teams but students themselves who are now worried about the potentially stressful and depressing content of university curricula. In a recent article in the New Republic, Atlanta-based journalist Jenny Jarvie brought attention to the sorry fact that ‘trigger warnings’ are being introduced on course materials so that students can brace themselves or stop reading when potentially troubling material lies ahead.
Apparently, student leaders at the University of California passed a resolution urging officials to institute mandatory trigger warnings on class syllabi. Professors who present ‘content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder’ would be required to ‘issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes’. The demands for such warnings are growing on American campuses, and it is only a matter of time before students call for them here in Britain, too.
Soon, students who have been poor could be demanding trigger warnings on sociology curricula and texts. Those who have been sick might call for trigger warnings on nursing curricula and texts. Those whose families have suffered in the past will probably want trigger warnings on history curricula and texts. As for literature, which is full of consensual and non-consensual sex, heartbreak and tragedy, well, just label the lot: ‘Too dangerous for vulnerable student minds.’