Student Perspective on Teaching Humanitarian Trauma in the Classroom
*** CONTENT WARNING ***
This article discusses traumatic themes including sexual violence, suicide, mental health and injury, please be advised that some people may find this distressing.
“Her vision to change the world blinded her to her own self-care” (Dunkley, 2018)
As a student of humanitarianism, I have studied some of the worst atrocities committed by humans. Each week students are exposed to some of the worst aspects of humanity. When reading about traumatic events continually, humanitarians risk exposing themselves to secondary trauma. Secondary trauma occurs in individuals who are exposed to material depicting the trauma of others which leads to them developing trauma symptoms that echo the primary victim’s. Recent years have seen more academics, including lecturers at HCRI, seeking to adjust how humanitarianism is taught in the classroom in order to mitigate trauma for students. In writing this blog post, I intend to contribute to the conversation from a student’s perspective.
When teaching trauma in the classroom it is important that the information dispersed is trauma-informed. This means that the importance of the topic is discussed fully, but with the impact on students and teaching staff in mind. Giving my own personal perspective, I was to give a brief overview of my background that has made me aware of this issue. Some readers may find the next section disturbing.
I am a survivor of sexual violence. There were a number of years in my life where I lived in constant fear (I want to stress that this abuse occurred prior to my enrollment at the University of Manchester). In my final year of university I finally sought professional help, and now I am awaiting PTSD therapy. In studying at HCRI, there are a number of modules where the prevalence of sexual violence in humanitarianism is discussed. In my second year there was a particular week where I had been warned by my peers that I would be distressed by the content, and they were right. Simply reading one article sent me into a month long spiral of fear, depression and rage at the abuse I had suffered whilst my abuser walked free, not conducive to successfully getting my academic commitments completed. In the end, I ended up in my capacity as Student Representative, working with Dr Jessica Hawkins to produce an email that lecturers could send to students who expressed their concerns regarding traumatic content.
Whilst this was a good first step, it was not enough. Today academics across the country are still committing themselves to figuring how to implement trauma-informed teaching in the classroom.
Students of humanitarianism all have their own reasons for pursuing the humanitarian path. Overall, there are often desires to have a career focused around helping others. This altruistic urge is seen in humanitarians globally. However, the majority of humanitarian professionals did not begin their careers with a degree in humanitarianism. In this way, students of humanitarians could develop a relationship with trauma differently to others. Long-term exposure to trauma can lead to secondary trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. All of these factors contribute to the degradation of the individual’s mental and eventually physical health as well as warping their world-view, often causing them to disassociate with those around them.
So what can be done at HCRI and beyond? In my personal experience and my experience as a humanitarian student, I have identified three different factors that should be considered when approaching traumatic subjects in the classroom:
- Early Warning System (EWS)
An EWS is an important part of trauma-informed teaching. An EWS, in the form of an advanced content warning, gives students time to prepare themselves ahead of teaching for the nature of the content and give them time to assess their own capacity to withstand the traumatic content. By knowing ahead of time the nature of the content they are studying, students also have time to discuss with their lecturer the best approach for their circumstances to minimise distress in students.
- Continual Care
As well as having an EWS, continual care is an important part of the process. By Continual Care, I mean that trigger warnings should be given immediately before traumatic content is shown. In a classroom scenario this can be through a slide ahead of traumatic imagery or content. However, a more proactive approach would ensure that academia as a whole focuses on discussing trauma in a non-gratuitous way. In my dissertation submitted this past May, I briefly discussed the issue of gratuitous descriptions of sexual violence committed by aid workers. In these descriptions, as the reader I perceived the way in which the victim’s suffering was depicted as creating traumatic imagery that could cause emotional distress to the reader, without meaningful use of the suffering that could enact a change in the way humanitarian organisations handle the issue of sexual violence. What I am trying to demonstrate here is that traumatic topics can be discussed in a way that is useful and contributes to tangible learning advancements and change, the way it is approached is the current issue. Instead of asking students to read violent descriptions, or view graphic imagery that is simply gratuitous, students can engage with the real-life atrocities that occur, without having distressing imagery haunt them after the lesson is over.
The final step to trauma-informed teaching is the provision of sufficient after-care. It is all well and good doing steps 1 and 2, but when the lesson is over and students go home where they may be alone, that is where the memories of what they have learnt may resurface and cause more distress. I know that in my personal experience, content discussed in lectures has continued to marinate in the back of my mind for days, even weeks after the lesson is over. Whilst some may argue that this is good as it could potentially encourage the student to make an effort and dedicate themselves to contributing to changing those circumstances, the student may instead fall victim to secondary trauma, burnout or compassion fatigue.
Consuming traumatic content on a daily basis requires teaching institutions to ensure they are providing academic safe spaces for after-care to occur. Whether it is simply a Rest and Relaxation event where there’s food, music or movies played, or a quiet, confidential listening service where students can speak to a trusted individual about how they are really feeling about the information they’re learning. What is important is that the student’s lives don’t just become a cycle of trauma: wake up, get ready, read about violence, have lunch, go to lecture, learn about disasters, write about conflict, go to a seminar, talk about suffering, go home, sleep. It is important that students be given opportunity to completely and safely disconnect from the distressing issues discussed in lessons, as well as having a safe outlet for their emotional burdens, to allow them to healthily process their emotions towards the academia. It’s common knowledge that the general student population enjoys a drink, smoke and a bit of drugs here and there, what is important is that these do not become coping mechanisms, like is common in the humanitarian sector, where they rely on these substances to dull the realities of the emotional burden a humanitarian takes on.
Overall, the before, during and after of teaching traumatic subjects needs to be infused with a culture that mitigates the emotional burden placed on students of humanitarianism. The response I received when expressing my personal hesitation about reading about sexual violence due to my own experiences felt patronizing as I was told the topic cannot be ignored and we need to recognise the reality of the situation. Attitudes like this in my opinion contribute to the mental deterioration faced by humanitarians. We constantly diminish our own personal suffering for fear of appearing weak or selfish in the face of the suffering of others. But at what point should humanitarians blind themselves to their own self-care in the pursuit of saving others? Humanitarian aid is about saving others yes. But how can we say that we are giving 100% dedication to the lives of others when we fail to recognise our own needs?
When our aid workers are traumatized, burnt-out and apathetic to the environment around them, how can we look disaster victims in the eyes and say we are doing everything we can for them? The current work of academics trying to create trauma-informed teaching is a significant step towards creating a safer humanitarian sector for all. This being my contribution, from the perspective of a student of humanitarianism, who already has PTSD, it is not a fun condition, and if teaching staff, academics and students combined can create a more inclusive classroom where others like me can feel safe to learn without fearing an emotional breakdown, then I hope we can create a better form of humanitarianism.