The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan criticizes the "Trigger-Happy Generation" in her latest column, adding to the increasingly wide range of media figures questioning the merits of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" on college campuses. But her attacks in particular reveal a troubling element largely missing from this debate: an honest assessment of the crisis of mental health support for students.
Trigger warnings and safe spaces, in theory, attempt to warn and shield students from material that might remind them of past trauma or reinforce a hostile experience. In practice, they take on many different forms, giving ammunition to both defenders and critics who often see them as overzealous attempts to shield students from reality.
In her May 21 column, Noonan places herself squarely in the critics' camp, labeling on-campus advocacy for safe spaces and trigger warnings as "part of a growing censorship movement." She specifically targets an opinion piece in a Columbia University newspaper, which described in part a survivor of sexual assault wanting greater protection after feeling triggered during a class discussion on the rape scenes in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Noonan argues that the world is an unsafe place, and that students shouldn't try to shape it into something more comforting:
There is no such thing as safety. That is asking too much of life. You can't expect those around you to constantly accommodate your need for safety ... [I]f you constantly feel anxious and frightened by what you encounter in life, are we sure that means the world must reorder itself? Might it mean you need a lot of therapy?
Noonan is being flippant, but her dismissive joke actually points to a growing problem: colleges don't offer students enough mental health support, which may be one explanation for the growing trend of students trying to create safe spaces and safe texts for themselves.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the same day Noonan's column was published, a report released as part of the campaign found that millennials who work (which would include many college students) have the highest rates of depression of any generation. Last year, The Washington Post noted that according to recent studies, "44 percent of college students experienced symptoms of depression, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students."
And victims of rape, intimate-partner violence, stalking, or sexual assault -- which the Columbia University student Noonan highlighted reportedly was -- are "drastically more likely to develop a mental disorder at some point in their lives," according to a 2011 Journal of the American Medical Association study, CNN reported at the time.
These students often don't have access to help, including the therapy Noonan blithely suggested. In 2011, the American Psychological Association labeled the state of mental health on campuses a "growing crisis," and they've continued to track the concerns since. College counseling centers, they explained, "are frequently forced to come up with creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported reducing the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing number of clients." 88 percent of campus counseling centers surveyed by the American College Counseling Association said they experienced staffing problems due to the increase in demand, the Baltimore Sun reported in 2013.
But as of 2012, only 56 percent of four-year colleges and universities offered on-campus psychiatric services. Fewer than 13 percent of community colleges did as well. The services can't keep up with the rise in demand.
To be sure, not all of the students asking for safe spaces or trigger warnings on their campuses need therapy, nor are they all seeking these spaces because of a general lack of robust mental health service on their campuses. However, I know at least some of them are, because that's exactly what I did.
From the April 23 edition of Fox News' The Five:
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Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan is backtracking and brazenly lying about his controversial remarks calling bipolar disorder "made up" and "the latest fad." While Sullivan now claims his remarks were taken "out of context," this defense is preposterous. He repeatedly dismissed the validity of bipolar disorder and the clip used by Media Matters was the same one posted by his employer with the headline "(AUDIO) Bipolar Woman Says She DESERVES Disability Benefits. Tom Tells Her She's WRONG!"
During his January 28 program, Sullivan told a caller who said she suffered from bipolar disorder that "bipolar is like the latest fad." He also claimed, "I just think it's something made up by the mental health business," and "I don't know why we have to create these new illnesses" for something that "wasn't a problem in the first place."
Sullivan's remarks generated condemnation from Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA), members of the media, mental health advocates, people on social media, and online petitioners. Many have pointed out that comments like Sullivan's only further stigmatize those suffering from mental illness.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) criticized Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan for his "unfounded" and "senseless" remarks last week calling bipolar disorder "made up" and "the latest fad."
In a statement provided to Media Matters, Napolitano said that Sullivan's "senseless speech discourages listeners and viewers from seeking treatment they need, halting the progress we have made toward the goal of eliminating stigma." She added: "Rather than minimizing people who have the courage to talk about their illness we should be lifting them up, so others know it is always okay to ask for help."
The California congresswoman is a longtime mental health advocate and was the co-chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus in the 108th through 112th (2003-2013) Congresses.
Sullivan, who is also a Fox Business contributor and regular guest anchor, said on his January 28 Fox News Radio program that people with mental illness have figured how to "game the system" by receiving disability benefits. He added, "they're mostly government employees and they know how to do it."
From the February 4 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:
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Rand Paul's connection to leading conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is under new scrutiny after the Republican senator recently claimed vaccines could lead to "mental disorders."
In 2009, Paul was interviewed for Jones' Infowars.com and claimed "martial law" could lead to "mandatory" vaccinations. Paul is one of Jones' biggest enablers even though the radio host has pushed fringe theories about 9-11, mass shootings, and the federal government.
Paul has been heavily criticized after he said this week that vaccines should be voluntary because there are purportedly "many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also recently said parents should have "some measure of choice" about vaccinations.
The Washington Post reported that "Medical experts reacted with alarm" to their remarks. MIT professor Seth Mnookin, who has written extensively on the "devastating" anti-vaccine movement, said the comments were "incredibly, incredibly irresponsible." University of Pittsburgh Dr. Amesh Adalja said people like Paul are "giving credence to things that have been completely debunked" and "called the comments from Paul particularly troubling because Paul is a doctor."
Paul raised the specter of big government and "martial law" when talking about vaccines during an August 21, 2009 interview, as Media Matters Action Network reported in 2010. He said that "the first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates. And they're talking about making it mandatory. I worry because the last flu vaccine we had in the 1970s, more people died from the vaccine than died from the swine flu."
Paul, who was a U.S. Senate candidate at the time, added that he would have taken the smallpox and polio vaccine, but urged caution on vaccines in general, stating: "I say you have to be careful, you have to weigh the risks of the disease versus the risks of the vaccine, but I'm not going to tell people who think it's a bad idea that they have to take it because everybody should be allowed to make their own health care decisions, and that's the problem with allowing more and more government."
ABC News contributor Laura Ingraham falsely suggested there's a link between vaccines and autism, which flies in the face of substantial scientific evidence and her own employer's reporting on the issue.
A domestic measles outbreak has highlighted the rising numbers of American parents who disregard medical recommendations and choose not to vaccinate their children, often for religious or personal reasons.
On February 2, Ingraham spoke with a caller on her radio show who claimed that vaccinations had "something to do with" her child getting autism. Ingraham suggested that this might be a compelling reason to forgo vaccinating children, saying that there has been "anecdotal evidence" pointing to "overnight change" in children who have been vaccinated.
Contrary to Ingraham, ABC News reported just the day before that the science is clear: there is no link between autism and vaccines.
As ABC's This Week explained on February 1, a "now discredited study" published in 1998 originally gave rise to this myth about autism. The Lancet, the medical journal which published the study, retracted it in 2010, while The British Medical Journal called the research "fraudulent" and authorities stripped the doctor of his license. Multiple studies since then have confirmed that vaccines are safe.
"Study after study has shown that there are no negative long-term consequences," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told ABC. Measles, he said, is a "serious disease, and it would be terrible if we have preventable illness, even death, from this disease that's preventable with a safe and effective vaccine."
A New York Times report explained how irresponsible media coverage has played a role in perpetuating this dangerous myth about vaccines. Right-wing media figures, including Fox & Friends, Sharyl Attkisson, and now Ingraham, have long helped prop up discredited science and baseless fearmongering about the safeties of vaccines. Glenn Beck and multiple Fox News figures have repeatedly floated debunked claims vaccines may be linked to autism. Rush Limbaugh even declared in 2009 that it was "hard to disagree" with claims that the swine flu vaccine was "developed to kill people."
During her radio show, Ingraham went on to claim that measles is "not generally a deadly disease" -- ignoring the fact that "measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children" worldwide -- and to baselessly speculate that undocumented immigrants were to blame for spreading infectious diseases such as measles and TB in the U.S.
ABC News hired Ingraham as a contributor in April 2014, despite her long history of inflammatory and misinformed rhetoric.
From the February 2 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan told a caller who said she suffered from bipolar disorder that her illness is "something made up by the mental health business" and just "the latest fad." When the caller told Sullivan that she "would not be alive today" if she hadn't received mental health treatment, Sullivan wondered if "maybe somebody's talked you into feeling and thinking this way."
Sullivan, who is also a frequent Fox Business contributor and guest anchor, began his January 28 program by complaining that people with mental illness have figured how to "game the system" by receiving disability benefits. "They're mostly government employees and they know how to do it," he added. Sullivan also defended Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) controversial and false statement that "Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts."
A caller later challenged Sullivan over his remarks, saying she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago and mental health treatment allowed her to graduate from college and obtain a full-time job. The caller, who now volunteers with Stop Stigma Sacramento, noted that bipolar disorder isn't a made up illness and is biological.
Fox News' Keith Ablow issued a defiant statement defending his cable news psychoanalysis of President Obama after being condemned by medical experts.
Here is a sample of the type of bizarre and offensive commentary offered by Ablow:
Yesterday the Associated Press reported on criticism of Ablow from other psychiatrists, including the past president of the American Psychiatric Association's statement that "it is shameful and unfortunate that he is given a platform by Fox News or any other media organization."
Medical experts contacted by the Associated Press condemned Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow for his ongoing cable news psychoanalysis of President Obama, his wife, and other figures.
Last week, Michael Savage leveled his latest in a long string of attacks on Americans with mental illness and the medical community that works to help them. After a veteran caller with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) expressed support for the city of San Francisco naming a bridge after the late Robin Williams, the right-wing radio host announced that he is "so sick and tired of everyone with their complaints about PTSD, depression," asserting that it's a sign of a "weak, sick, broken nation."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 5.2 million adults have PTSD within a given year. As of 2012, mental illness was the leading reason for active-duty hospitalizations in the military, and the VA estimates that up to 20 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001 suffer from PTSD. For veterans who left the military between October 2002 and July 2011, nearly 200,000 had a provisional diagnosis for PTSD, not including those who went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. And the Institute of Medicine reported in June that "PTSD is the third most common major service-connected disability after hearing loss and ringing of the ears."
PTSD isn't just a combat-related injury. It can result from various traumatic incidents, ranging from child abuse to car accidents to muggings to sexual assault. A fight-or-flight response can be triggered by things that remind the survivor of her trauma, or things that catch the person off-guard, like bright lights or loud noises. Often those with PTSD experience flashbacks, where memories and feelings associated with past trauma come rushing back as if the trauma was happening all over again.
Conservative radio host Michael Savage accused those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, including military veterans, of being "weak," "narcissistic," "losers." Savage added that "we're being laughed at around the world. No wonder ISIS can defeat our military."
As Right Wing Watch's Brian Tashman documented, Savage began an October 14 segment by complaining about a plan to rename a San Francisco tunnel after the late comedian Robin Williams. Savage called Williams "a depressed clown who was so selfish he choked himself to death with a belt." He added: "What is this sick, backwards area I live in?"
After getting into a heated argument with a caller who said he suffered from PTSD while in the military, Savage went on an unhinged rant in which he explained why he is "so sick and tired of everyone with their complaints about PTSD, depression":
Fox News medical contributor Keith Ablow wrote that there is something wrong in the minds of Ferguson residents who reacted to the shooting death of 18 year-old Michael Brown by a police officer with protests.
In an August 20 opinion piece posted on FoxNews.com, Ablow opined that the psyche of Ferguson needs to be investigated following the unrest that erupted after Brown's killing. Ablow suggested that the community's reactions were racially motivated; accusing the residents of presuming "the moral depravity of whites," which they would not have done if the teen was raped or killed by a black police officer:
The psychology of those who rioted and committed other lawless acts in Ferguson is as suspect at this moment as the psychology of Darren Wilson, because their psychology presumes the moral depravity of whites - at least those in authority.
If a black officer had shot and killed Michael Brown, chances are there would be no protests at all. Perhaps there would be a civil suit. Perhaps there would be criminal charges against the officer involved. But there would be no unrest.
When a woman is raped even if by a police officer, the community does not erupt in violence, with throngs of women breaking windows and threatening to storm the police command station.
Whether or not Officer Darren Wilson is guilty of anything, something is deeply wrong with the psyche of the community in Ferguson, Mo. And understanding and addressing that pathology should be the first order of business of community leaders - even as the work of investigating the Michael Brown shooting is unfolding.
Community leaders and residents in Ferguson have worked to keep demonstrations peaceful, and media reports indicate that many of the people arrested for violence in Ferguson have come from outside the community to confront police. Some Ferguson residents have also worked to protect local businesses from looters.
Ablow continues to use his Fox News platform to make inflammatory claims and attack the Obama administration, most recently coming under fire for his comments calling Michelle Obama too fat to be a credible voice on school nutrition.
After coming under heavy criticism for exploiting the death of comedian Robin Williams to attack "political leftists," radio host Rush Limbaugh responded to the uproar by lashing out at Media Matters and the "leftist media" for highlighting his remarks.
During the August 12 broadcast of his show, Limbaugh tied Williams' death to what he described as the "leftist worldview." Discussing media accounts of Williams' suicide, Limbaugh said that the "survivor's guilt" mentioned as a possible contributing factor is "a constant measurement that is made by political leftists in judging the country":
Right here it says that one the contributing factors to Robin Williams deciding to kill himself was "survivor's guilt." It's in the headline.
I read that and I thought, "Survivor's guilt? What? What survivor's guilt? What?" So I read it, and it turns out that three of his closest friends, the story says -- Christopher Reeve, John Belushi, and Andy Kaufman... The source, unnamed in the story, said that Robin Williams felt guilty that he was still alive while his three friends had died young and much earlier than he had.
He could never get over the guilt that they died and he didn't.
Well, that is a constant measurement that is made by political leftists in judging the country. It's outcome-based education: 2 + 2 = 5. "That's fine until the student learns it's 4. We're not gonna humiliate the student by pointing out that he's wrong. If he figures it out, cool. We're gonna take the fast learners and we're gonna slow them down so that they don't humiliate the kids that don't learn as fast as they do. It's just not fair."
Limbaugh's comments were widely reported by numerous media outlets. On his August 13 broadcast, Limbaugh responded to outrage over his comments by denying that he had "accused Robin Williams of committing suicide because he was a liberal," and blaming the negative response to his comments on Media Matters and the "leftist media.
Limbaugh has used similar tactics for years to escape responsibility for his commentary - - at times he even claims his offensive statements were an intentional "media tweak," a comment deliberately intended to draw attention from reporters.
In a rare exception, after coming under heavy criticism in 2012 for describing then-law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute," Limbaugh "sincerely apologize[d]" to her, saying he "did not mean a personal attack" by launching 44 personal insults at her over three broadcasts. Those comments led to a massive advertiser boycott of Limbaugh's program that continues to this day.