Can Offensive Political Speech on Campus Cause Trauma?

strongertogether-1-e1552360966863.jpg

I went on Half Hour of Heterodoxy to talk about student reactions to political extremists giving speeches on college campuses. I was grateful for Chris Martin‘s interesting questions and wanted to expand on a few of the discussion points.

What’s the definition of trauma?

The DSM-5 defines trauma as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: 1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s), 2) witnessing, in person, the event(s) or the event(s) as it occurred to others, 3) learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend, 4) work-related repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic event(s).

Do political extremists cause trauma when they speak on campus?

DSM-defined trauma is unlikely to occur at these events unless there’s actual or threatened violence involved (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). It’s important to avoid watering down the term trauma through misuse in situations where it doesn’t apply. However, I don’t think fear of acute trauma typically drives the opposition to political extremists on campus. I think the fear is more commonly about political extremists using campus appearances to spread discriminatory beliefs that perpetuate social inequities. The sense of threat comes from historical knowledge about the uses of propaganda, and it’s amplified when violent acts are carried out that reference this propaganda (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). Some political extremists explicitly state that they’re trying to recruit college students to their causes (1, 2) and have developed strategies for persuading people through coded language (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Despite trauma being an unlikely consequence of these speeches, there is a robust literature showing that experiences of discrimination are related to worse mental and physical health (e.g., 1, 2, 3)* and that people can have physiological stress responses when exposed to discrimination and racism.** For example, it’s been proposed that these types of stress responses contribute to birth outcome disparities between Black and White women in the United States (e.g., 1, 2). 

What should universities do?

1) Actions should be individually-tailored for the particular university and involve discussion with students and faculty, instead of something pushed top-down from administrators. Include mental health experts in these conversations.

2) Express support for faculty and students. Even if you disagree with their viewpoints, don’t ridicule students or erroneously reduce all of their concerns to an inability to handle differences of opinion. Students are exposed to politically extreme views in spaces outside of campus speeches, and that exposure often shapes their beliefs about the particular speaker and the potential for harmful societal consequences. It’s not helpful to deride students who respond by using their time and resources to organize nonviolent protests to combat social inequality.

3) Don’t equate mental health issues with weakness or confuse therapy with avoidance. Normalize discussions about mental health on campus. University-wide e-mails are sent around about flu shots and other medical issues – it can be helpful to do the same with mental health information and resources. When people seek counseling, the first step involves determining whether the person has a mental health problem. If a student refers to something as trauma when it’s not, therapists provide them with that valuable corrective feedback. There’s also a misconception that therapy is about unconditional reassurance or hand-holding, but it’s actually all about empowering people to face their problems skillfully.

4) Be precise in stating your rationale for hosting speakers on campus. I doubt that many university administrators think there is educational value in speeches by people like Richard Spencer. Usually, they’re motivated by the importance of upholding free speech principles and are legally obliged to host speakers in public spaces. I’ve heard some arguments that there are educational and mental health benefits to having political extremists on campus (e.g., via exposure to “new and challenging” ideas). The free speech argument is compelling, but the educational and psychological growth arguments are not. I’m not aware of any evidence that exposure to inaccurate, dehumanizing ideas about groups of people confers psychological benefits (if you are aware of such research, please share it with me). For example, some students have opposed Ben Shapiro speaking on their campuses. As I have written about, he spreads false information about suicide and trans people (also watch Natalie Wynn refute Shapiro’s claims). It’s hard to comprehend how learning inaccurate ideas, which are used to restrict rights (e.g., 1, 2), add value to students’ lives. When someone argues that accuracy and education don’t matter when it comes to protecting free speech, I find that much more convincing and honest.

A recent video by Natalie Wynn included a nuanced description of her response to Ricky Gervais telling transphobic jokes in his comedy specials. She made it clear that the thing that bothered her wasn’t that he’s allowed to tell those jokes (she’s a huge proponent of free speech) or even that the jokes are unoriginal, unfunny, or offensive. Rather, she’s afraid that he’s spreading untruthful ideas that make the world a harder place for people like her (she’s a trans woman). Her descriptions reflect the kind of complexity and clarity needed for productive conversations about the psychological effects of these types of speech.

*This paper describes the complexities of measuring discrimination in research.

**Individual differences between people and situations determine the extent to which any particular person will be affected by an event.

Information & Resources

Accurate information about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder is available here.

For student organizer perspectives, listen to Hoai An Pham here (episode 10) and read Maximillian Alvarez’s article here.

Chris Martin‘s Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast has featured guests with a variety of opinions on free speech and other campus-related issues.

Two particularly thoughtful academics who write about campus free speech issues are Aaron Hanlon and Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve learned a lot about First Amendment litigation from reading work by Ken White and FIRE.

I co-wrote a blog post on college mental health that you can access here.

Acknowledgments

In preparation for the podcast, I reached out to three people with relevant expertise and experience: Dr. Yessenia Castro, Linda Gordon, and Carly Marten. They generously shared research, articles, resources, and their thoughts with me. I’m thankful for how much they deepen my understanding of these issues and for all that they do to make the world a better place.

How Can Professors Help Students with Mental Health Concerns?

This post was co-written with clinical psychology graduate student and Jedi Counsel podcast co-host, Brandon Saxton.

Disclaimer: Policies, procedures, and resources vary by university, so it’s important to check with your own university and to defer to those over our recommendations.mental-2470926_960_720

In the early 1900s, faculty and staff at Princeton University noticed that several students were dropping out of school due to mental health problems. They sought to prevent this by creating the first campus mental health program in 1910. Since then, it has become standard practice to offer counseling along with physical health services on college campuses. For a fascinating overview of this history, we recommend reading this Kraft (2011) article. Here’s a sample excerpt:

excerpt.png

Professors often serve as an initial contact for students with mental health concerns. Some students are unaware of the available resources and reach out to professors to point them in the right direction, while others feel more comfortable checking in with a professor before seeking help from someone they don’t know.

We’ll start with some general guidelines for assisting students when they approach you for help:

  1. Listen to and assess the nature of the problem in a nonjudgmental fashion. Asking about mental health is typically beneficial for people experiencing problems and does not generally have a detrimental effect on people who aren’t experiencing them (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
  2. Respond with compassion and acknowledge their concerns. This can provide a sense of hope and validation.
  3. Refer them to appropriate services for their needs (more on this below). When in doubt, choose the services that seem most fitting. If it turns out that the student doesn’t need services or requires a different resource, the specialists at the initial referral source will know how to best proceed.

To expand on step #3, we have listed some of the most common scenarios below:

Worry about mental health symptoms: We usually start with recommending the on-campus counseling services for students. Depending on a variety of factors (e.g., the severity of the problem, their insurance coverage), they may also be interested in off-campus recommendations. We typically give them the link for the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website to find therapists who use scientifically-informed practices. If you or the student are unsure about whether the student’s issues warrant intervention, you can assure them that the first step in mental health care is to undergo an evaluation to answer that question and then formulate a plan based on the findings. If they are reluctant to go to the counseling center, we will sometimes offer to walk over there with them or tell them that we understand and that those services will be available when they are ready. If appropriate, we also provide students with information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Displaying unusual/worrisome behavior: If a student is exhibiting odd or potentially harmful behavior (e.g., their assignments have violent or suicidal content, they are showing up to class intoxicated, they seem disoriented), then you can typically contact a Behavioral Intervention Team on your campus for guidance. Behavioral Intervention Teams are composed of individuals who represent different components of the campus community (e.g., residence life, student affairs, faculty, law enforcement, counseling center, etc.) and provide consultation, advice, and follow-up with students who need it.

Class accommodations request: Sometimes, students will ask for accommodations without the required formal paperwork. In these cases, it’s important to refer the student to the campus counseling center or the disabilities office, so that they can go through a formal assessment process rather than leaving it up to your own discretion. If students tell us about a life circumstance that affected their ability to complete an assignment, and it’s a one- or two-time incident, we’ll typically allow them to make up the work. However, when the request is more long-term in nature or requiring special accommodations that may be unfair to other students, it’s important to defer to the experts in the disabilities office to make the decisions.

Harassment/discrimination: If a student tells you that they have experienced harassment or discrimination, you should take time to listen attentively, sympathize, and then refer them to the office that handles Title IX issues. We strongly recommend visiting your university website for that office, so that you are familiar with the most up-to-date mandated reporting guidelines and the processes for filing complaints. Here again, if you are unsure whether something rises to the level of harassment or discrimination, it’s important (and sometimes mandated) that you report it to the appropriate office so that they can use their specialized training to make a determination (rather than your own judgment).

In summary, we recommend expressing that you care while also recognizing your boundaries as a professor. You should not act as their therapist, but you can help by connecting them with one. Professors have the power to create an educational environment that reduces mental health stigma and increases students’ willingness to seek help when they need it. We try to communicate this to students by showing that we welcome their questions, providing them with mental health resource information in class, announcing mental health-related community events, and treating such topics with care. As a testament to the positive influence a professor can have through these strategies, look at this letter that Dr. Jeffrey Cohen received from one of his students (thanks to Rob Gordon for sharing it).

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions, concerns, or corrections. We’ll conclude by linking to two informative articles and our podcast episode on the topic, which goes into more detail. Thank you for reading!

  1. Graduate Students Need More Mental Health Support, New Study Highlights by Elisabeth Pain
  2. The Myth of the Ever-More Fragile College Student by Jesse Singal
  3. Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments by Paul Barreira, Matthew Basilico, and Valentin Bolotonyy

hope