Friday, November 27, 2015

PTSD and higher education

Today, my department hosted a panel on mental health in university classrooms. Super necessary, and for the most part, reasonably informative. This was probably critical info for people who don't have much background in supporting students with mental health disabilities. The first two presenters were clear, and offered an overview of available resources that we could refer to. The last one, however, I feel was very problematic. The main part of his talk was ok - not the approach to accommodating students that I personally would have used, but it was fine. The trouble was after a faculty member asked what he thought of trigger warnings.

Our guest speaker doesn't like trigger warnings, because he doesn't find them effective. OK, I can see that, because they really aren't as effective as we'd like to hope they could be. The trouble I had was in his conceptualization of PTSD. He has been diagnosed with PTSD; so have I. We clearly have different experiences of it, but also different conceptualizations of the condition. I am distressed that he made out his perception to be indicative of everyone with PTSD.

He told us that people with PTSD are less sensitive than other people; numb. To a degree, yes, that's true - but we aren't numb to recalling our trauma. Instead we're numb to so many other things around us. He said that people who respond emotionally to depictions of trauma (and in this case his example was rape) don't actually have PTSD, but are merely upset about what happened to them. That's where I vehemently disagree. He talked about triggers as, for example, the little things - like if you're assaulted and you can smell onions nearby, you might be triggered by the smell of onions. And, yes, of course you might be. But that doesn't negate that you might still be triggered by, for example, a movie screened in class with a rape scene.

When PTSD was a challenge for me (it's not so bad recently), I could be triggered by little things that you'd never guess: things that were in the room at the time, that remind me of things he or I were wearing, smells, the pattern of the floor tiles. Things that I could run into, without warning, in a huge range of situations. They are bizarre, and specific to me and my experience. But I could also be triggered by perhaps more obvious things: the facial expression and body language of a man who knows he is about to get his way; phrases that connote pain and struggle. The sights and sounds that are fairly specific to rape or other bodily trauma. And lots of survivors, even with quite different experiences, will still find these things triggering. Think of if you break a glass: just because there are small fragments that end up under the oven that you find only years later does not negate that there are also fragments right there, under your nose. You still have to be careful not to step on any of them.

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