Survey: Plurality of med students support 'trigger warnings'

A recent study conducted by a group of Ohio University med school professors found that their students are more likely than not to “support the use of trigger warnings.”

Professor Elizabeth Beverly, et al. surveyed 259 medical students for a study published in the most recent issue of Teaching and Learning in Medicine, finding that 31 percent absolutely support “the use of triggers warnings in medical education.”

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Meanwhile, 39 percent of respondents said they would “maybe” support their usage, though many of those expressed generally-favorable opinions of trigger warnings, including one student who said they should be used before discussing “very deep issues that potentially could cause an emotional rise in someone.”

One student, for instance, acknowledged that “a picture of anything medically related shouldn’t be too distressing” for someone who is training to be a physician, but then asserted that “sometimes it’s nice to have a warning to mentally prepare yourself for the conversation or information presented.”

Conversely, only 29 percent of the students who were surveyed rejected the use of trigger warnings in the classroom entirely, citing concerns that they enable students to avoid difficult topics or inhibit the academic freedom of instructors.

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Beverly told Campus Reform that, at the very least, she and her peers have “identified a need to educate students about triggering topics and explain why trigger warnings can be very subjective to any one individual,” but clarified that since the survey is among the first of its kind, more research will need to be conducted before administrators consider mandating the use of trigger warnings in medical school classrooms.

“Research is needed to test the effectiveness of using triggering warnings in the classroom with both subjective (e.g., reflective writing, interviews) and objective measures (e.g., stress, depression, anxiety, empathy, knowledge questionnaires),” she explained, adding that “if future research shows trigger warnings improve knowledge, empathy, and wellbeing, trigger warnings would be a positive addition to the medical students’ curricula.”

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“Our findings did not reach consensus for or against the use of trigger warnings in medical school. However, we did identify a need to educate students about triggering topics and, in turn, how to cope with this information,” Beverly and her colleagues write in the conclusion of their report.

“We need to teach our medical students how to deal with difficult feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions so that when they do encounter patients who share experiences that can be triggering, they know what to do,” the professors add, speculating that “trigger warnings may represent teachable moments for professors to offer insight and techniques on how to handle challenging situations in future patient encounters.”

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