The prevalence of student mental health challenges and trauma is well-acknowledged in higher education. In this context, content and trigger warnings serve as essential tools, especially beneficial in courses exploring sensitive topics that have the potential to distress students. This blog explores the role and meaning of these types of warnings, and how their implementation can contribute to inclusive, trauma-informed learning spaces and positive impacts on student wellbeing. 

What are trigger and content warnings?

Trigger and content warnings are statements provided at the start of a piece of writing, video, or other educational material, alerting the reader or viewer to potentially distressing content. Warnings are beneficial in courses that delve into distressing topics such as rape, sexual assault, various forms of abuse, animal cruelty, self-harm, suicide, excessive violence, and racial conflict. They are particularly relevant in fields where these topics may be discussed in detail, including Law, Medicine, Psychology, Counselling, Social Work, Gender Studies, History, and Political Science.

Implementing warnings in these contexts serves as a precaution, allowing students to brace themselves emotionally and mentally. Although ‘trigger’ and ‘content’ are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings: 

  • ‘Content Warnings’ serve as universal advisories, akin to film ratings. They flag potential sensitivities in material – for example, a literature class reading that includes mature themes such as violence or explicit language. In an educational context, a content warning is a written or oral statement given before presenting certain material, disclosing that the content may be sensitive in nature. It anticipates that some students may feel uncomfortable with the material. 
  • ‘Trigger Warnings’ are specific, psychologically-anchored written or oral content warnings provided before presenting material that may induce traumatic responses – for example, detailed descriptions of sexual assault in a law class. They disclose that the content may be triggering for students with lived experiences of trauma, allowing them to prepare emotionally and offering the option to step away and return when ready. These warnings are essential for more explicit content that could evoke traumatic responses.

Why are warnings important? 

Content and trigger warnings are an important aspect of inclusive teaching and learning experiences. In considering how we use warnings, we can:

  • Acknowledge the diverse experiences of students and promote a sense of safety and respect within the learning space
  • Recognise and include individuals with mental health conditions
  • Shift the norms of content presentation to be more considerate of students’ lived experiences
  • Empower students, giving them agency to mentally prepare for interactions with potentially sensitive content and make informed decisions on their engagement level
  • Accommodate all students, regardless of whether they have a trauma-related clinical diagnosis, by creating a space where everyone feels seen, respected, and safe.

This proactive approach enhances student engagement, minimises disruptions and fosters open dialogue and feedback, allowing all students to navigate their learning journey more effectively. 

Practicalities: which one do I use?

Predicting every potential trigger for each student is challenging, and striving to do so may lead to excessive or unnecessary warnings. The goal is to create a balanced and thoughtful approach to content presentation, ensuring a conducive and inclusive learning environment for all. 

The choice between ‘trigger’ and ‘content’ warnings is also nuanced. Trigger warnings directly address individuals with trauma, acknowledging their lived experience, but have been criticised for being overly medical. Content warnings can be seen as more neutral, applying to a broader audience, and focusing on the content rather than the potential reaction. 

With an emphasis on inclusivity and the evolution of language, content warnings are gaining preference for their broader applicability and neutral tone. However, context is key. Specific, potentially traumatic content, like a detailed description of a sexual assault, may necessitate a trigger warning. The decision should be context-sensitive, informed by best practices in trauma-informed pedagogy, and mindful of student and educator feedback. 

Implementation strategies for using warnings 

So you’ve identified potentially challenging or triggering content in your subject. What now? As you plan how to implement content or trigger warnings, here are some best practices to consider:

  1. Consult with experts: mental health professionals like UTS Counselling can help you to understand the potential impact of certain content on students. 
  2. Subject outline notification: incorporate a general statement in the syllabus about potentially challenging material. Offer guidance on the purpose of warnings, emphasising that the goal is not to avoid challenging topics but to mentally prepare for them. 
  3. Facilitate open discussions: talk about the relevance of the material in classroom discussions – but don’t pressure students to share personal experiences related to sensitive topics. 
  4. Ongoing training & feedback: explore more about trauma-informed teaching practices and establish a feedback mechanism to adjust practices based on student feedback. 
  5. Stay flexible: keep an open-door policy, allowing students to discuss concerns about course content privately if they choose.

When you do incorporate warnings, be clear and specific, articulating the nature of potentially distressing content without revealing crucial details (e.g. ‘Content Warning: Next week’s reading includes graphic descriptions of war.’). Offer alternative assignments or resources for students adversely affected by the content, and encourage ongoing communication where students can raise any questions or concerns. 

Further reading and resources

Implementing warnings with care is pivotal for responsible engagement with challenging subjects, creating an environment that is mindful of student needs and supportive of their mental wellbeing, balancing respect for students with academic rigour. You can explore more on this important topic via the links below:

Join the discussion